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Israel to sit out hearing on barrier

Officials contend World Court lacks jurisdiction in case

TEL AVIV -- Israel decided yesterday that it will not participate in World Court hearings on the legality of the country's construction of a massive barrier separating Israeli and Palestinian population centers. The hearings, requested by the UN General Assembly, are scheduled to begin Feb. 23 at The Hague, in the Netherlands.


A committee of senior Cabinet ministers said the decision to stay away from the proceedings was based on the advice of legal counsel that the court -- known formally as the International Court of Justice -- did not have jurisdiction in the case.

The United States, European Union countries, Russia, Japan, Canada, and Australia also dispute the court's jurisdiction, although most have criticized the barrier or its route.

At some points, the barrier cuts deeply into West Bank territory that a majority of nations feel should be part of a future Palestinian state.

Israel says the barrier is a defensive structure and that completed segments demonstrate its ability to block suicide bombers and others who seek the destruction of the Jewish state from infiltrating Israeli territory. Representatives of the Palestinians assert that Israel is using that argument as a cover to annex land in the West Bank.

The court agreed to look into the barrier -- a combination of fences, trenches, and walls -- in response to a 90-8 vote by the General Assembly to seek its advisory opinion. Seventy-four nations abstained.

"The ministerial committee, chaired by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, decided to suffice with the written declaration that Israel submitted on Jan. 30, 2004, according to which the International Court of Justice has no authority to discuss the terrorism-prevention fence since it concerns Israel's basic right of self-defense," the prime minister's office said in a statement.

Palestinian activists said the Cabinet decision shows Israel knows the barrier construction is illegal. Jamal Juma', a leading campaigner against the barrier, said the case before the court is legal, not political, and that Israel was seeking to politicize it to avoid the legal issues.

"The fence is built on Palestinian land," he said. "It violates UN resolutions and human rights accords. If the court says it is illegal, then our struggle against the fence is legitimate."

Alan Baker, chief legal adviser to Israel's Foreign Ministry, said the 124-page brief filed with the court concentrated on the argument that the court lacked jurisdiction in the matter and did not attempt to defend the legality of the barrier under international law.

Baker said the brief described how Palestinian suicide bombings led to the decision to build the barrier, and documented its effectiveness.

"Israel engaged the court in a respectable way, in writing," Baker said. "After reading the other countries' briefs, we decided there was nothing we needed to add in person."

Forty-nine countries have filed briefs with the court regarding the barrier, which has been under construction since June 2002. The briefs will not be made public until the first hearing, but attorneys who have seen the documents say that, in general, less developed countries are urging the court to make a legal finding in the case, while highly developed countries assert the issue is outside the scope of the World Court.

While Israel will not participate in the hearings, hundreds of Israelis are planning to travel to the Dutch city during the proceedings to display the names and photographs of victims of terrorism.

Zaka, the Israeli organization that picks up human remains at the scenes of bombings, has arranged to ship to The Hague the charred hulk of Egged Bus 19, in which a Palestinian policeman blew himself up, also killing 10 Israelis, on Jan. 29.

Foreign Ministry officials said Israel also would send spokesmen to The Hague to brief journalists outside the court and counter Palestinian claims regarding the barrier.

Three cases challenging the legality of the barrier have been accepted for review by Israel's highest court.

They assert that the barrier impinges on the basic human rights of innocent Palestinians, unjustly disrupting their lives by separating farmers from their lands in some areas and by isolating some Palestinian villages.

At the first hearing on these cases, held early this week in Jerusalem, the government's attorney said many of the objections were to sections of the barrier on which construction has not yet begun and that revisions in the plans were still being made.

The government also has indicated to the United States, which has objected strongly to plans to extend the barrier deep into the West Bank, that it is considering changes in response.


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