20 February 2004
The International Court of Justice in The Hague begins hearings Monday on the legality of the barrier Israel is building in and around the Palestinian territory of the West Bank. Israel says it has a right to build the barrier to protect its citizens against terrorist attacks. Palestinians say the barrier violates international and humanitarian law, and they are asking the Court to advise on the barrier's legal consequences.
A wall in some places, a fence in others, the barrier represents security to people on the one side and a symbol of division and oppression on the other.
Here, by Abu Dis, on the outskirts of Jerusalem - it began as a row of pre-formed concrete blocks a few meters high. In places there were gaps and stones stacked up high enough so people could climb over. Now, just a few months later, it's a solid wall - some eight meters high. It cuts off the main road, snakes its way up and down the hillsides and separates homes and shops on one side of the street from the other.
Seventy four-year-old Um Ali says she used to climb over some stone steps to get from Abu Dis to Jerusalem. Not anymore.
"This is hell", she says. "It's taken two hours just to get from Damascus Gate in Jerusalem to here. And, we have to do this every day. She says the Israeli soldiers often block the gates, and then everyone has to walk even farther."
Israel began building the barrier almost two years ago as a combination of concrete slabs, razor wire, trenches and lookout posts. It was supposed to be built more or less along the so-called Green Line, the boundary between Israel and the West Bank area Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war. But the barrier has veered far into the West Bank in many areas, and is expected to continue to do so to encompass Jewish settlements.
The Israeli human rights group B'tselem says close to 3,000 hectares of Palestinian land have already been confiscated to build the barrier. And, according to U.N. estimates, by the time it is finished, one third of the Palestinians in the West Bank will be affected, many will be trapped in isolated enclaves and about 400,000 will be cut off from their jobs or the fields they work, from going to schools or to hospitals.
Michael Tarazi is a legal adviser for the Palestinians. He says it was time to take the issue to court.
"It will remind the international community that this is not simply a conflict between two equal parties that have to sort it out themselves, but rather a conflict between an occupier and [the] occupied and the occupier, namely Israel, is subject to international legal norms that it has avoided and ignored for more than 36 years now," he said.
Lawyers for the Palestinian side will argue the case before the International Court of Justice in The Hague based on international and humanitarian laws.
Israel has sent a written position to the Court, but decided against making oral arguments. Israel has also challenged the Court's authority in the matter, saying this is a political dispute, not a legal one.
An Israeli expert on international law, Professor Ruth Lapidoth, agrees.
"We could say that every dispute has both political and legal aspects," she said. "But we must agree that, in regard to the Israel-Palestinian dispute, the political aspect is more important than the legal one."
Professor Lapidoth says the court case could undermine other attempts to find a solution to the dispute, and she warns that by taking on the case, the International Court risks tarnishing its own reputation.
"I think the Court would do well if it refused to exercise jurisdiction, because exercising jurisdiction in such a situation might lead to some politicization of the court, which could be very much against the prestige of the court," said Ruth Lapidoth.
The United States and the countries of the European Union have decided against taking part in the oral arguments. Washington does not recognize the court's jurisdiction in this case, and the EU says an opinion from the tribunal would be inappropriate, and could prejudice future peacemaking.
Supporters for both sides will make their arguments before the panel of judges, but also in rallies on the streets of The Hague as they try to influence public opinion.
But in Israel and the West Bank will anything change?
Forty eight-year-old Yoram is an Israeli from the lower Galilee. He's convinced the barrier is good for security.
Yoram acknowledges, however, that the barrier is breeding hatred and frustration on the other side. But he says it's a compromise that has to be made.
Most Palestinians say it matters little what the court rules, because, they say, Israel has already made it clear it will continue to build the barrier. And they say life is likely to only get harder.