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Israel Ready to Tear Down Part of Security Barrier - 2004-02-21

Israel says it will begin tearing down part of the controversial barrier it is building in the West Bank, before the International Court of Justice opens hearings Monday on the legality of the structure.

The Reuters news agency quotes a spokeswoman for the Israeli Defense Ministry as saying work will begin Sunday to remove an eight-kilometer section of the barrier near the West Bank villages of Baka al-Sharqiya and Zeita.

According to the report, that section of the barrier will be rebuilt, so that it follows the boundary between Israel and the West Bank.

The Hague tribunal begins a hearing on the barrier on Monday, but Israel has said it will not take part in the oral arguments, although it has made a written submission to the court.

Israel says the barrier is necessary to keep militants out of Israel. There have been more than 100 bombings in Israel in the past three years.

Palestinians say Israel is trying to unilaterally establish a border for an expanded Israeli state. Nearly 200 kilometers of the planned 728 kilometer-long barrier has already been built.

Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath criticized 12 Arab countries for not submitting legal arguments to the World Court, asking it to declare the barrier illegal. He said he was disappointed that only 10 of the 22 counties of the Arab League were making submissions to the court. Mr. Shaath said the Palestinians had expected all Arab countries to show their support for the Palestinian position.

Both the United States and the European Union have criticized the barrier, but they both oppose the court's involvement, because, they say, it will complicate future peacemaking, and should be resolved between the parties.

In other developments, the three high-level diplomats who met this week with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat are to meet with President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell soon.

On Friday, Mr. Powell said the envoys will discuss what they believe the prospects for peace are at the moment. The secretary of state again criticized Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for refusing to hand control of security forces to Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.