Tuesday, February 24, 2004

"Advisory opinion"

The International Court of Justice has begun to listen to arguments from Palestinian lawyers regarding the West Bank Security Fence. The Court is expected to offer an "advisory opinion" on the matter.

The US has submitted a "written argument" to the International Court of Justice, although the details of the argument have not been made public.

Israelis and Palestinians brought their arguments over Israel's controversial barricade in the West Bank onto neutral ground Monday, using a legal hearing to win support in the court of world opinion.

Legal debate over the barrier took place inside the Peace Palace, where the International Court of Justice meets. Outside the courtroom, grisly images of violence — from the blasted shell of an Israeli bus to photos of Palestinian children's bullet-torn bodies — competed for sympathy on the streets of this placid European capital.

The world court's hearing was a trigger for violent demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where thousands of Palestinians threw rocks at Israeli troops — and dodged tear gas or rubber-coated bullets in return — during a day of coordinated marches.

They were responding to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's call to "make your voices heard."

"There cannot be peace and security between the two peoples, or in the whole region, as long as this racial segregation wall is being built," Arafat said.

In The Hague, Palestinian lawyers argued that Israel's 452-mile barricade of wire, military patrol paths and concrete tower blocks cutting through Palestinian land was a "wall," the foundation of a permanent border.

They said its construction amounted to an Israeli land grab that would make it impossible to patch together an eventual Palestinian state.

"Israel is continuously attempting to change the status, physical character, nature and demographic composition of that territory, most recently through the construction of the wall," Nasser Kidwa, head of the Palestinian delegation to the U.N. and an architect of the legal challenge, told the 15 judges in his opening remarks. "Israel cannot once again be permitted to continue its ceaseless taking of Palestinian property and rights."

The Palestinians are hoping that the United Nations' judicial body will heed a request from the General Assembly to deliver a nonbinding "advisory opinion" on the barrier's "legal consequences in the occupied Palestinian territory."

The Israeli government contends that the court has no business offering an opinion on something as vague as "legal consequences."

Its lawyers complain that the process does not refer to Palestinian "acts of terrorism" that make the barrier necessary. They are building a defensive "fence," the Israelis say, that can be removed should the suicide attacks end.

The Israelis weren't making that argument in court Monday, however. Ignoring several prominent voices inside Israel calling for the government to argue its case in The Hague, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the world court had no jurisdiction over a matter of national security — although Israel did submit a legal brief outlining its objections.

The U.S. and most European countries, which have reservations about the barrier but want the matter settled by diplomats, not judges, also submitted written arguments.


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