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Thousands of Palestinians Protest Against Israeli Barrier - 2004-02-23

Thousands of Palestinians demonstrated in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to protest against the barrier Israel is building in and around the West Bank. The rallies come as the International Court of Justice in The Hague began three days of hearings on the legality of the barrier.

Palestinians took to the streets to show their anger at the Israeli barrier. Scuffles were reported in some areas between demonstrators and Israeli security forces, who at times used tear gas to push back the crowds.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia took part in one such protest in the village of Abu Dis on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Mr. Qureia stood in front of the eight meter-tall concrete blocks, which now separate Palestinian villages from Jerusalem, and said that such barriers would not enhance Israel's security but would instead breed discontent.

Earlier, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat urged Palestinians to make their voices heard. In a televised speech from his headquarters in Ramallah, Mr. Arafat also warned that the barrier will not bring Israel peace and security.

Mr. Arafat said the world needs to know the truth, which he said is that Israel is building this barrier to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state and to instead strengthen its occupation of Palestinian land. Mr. Arafat said under these conditions there can be no two-state solution and no peace in the region. Mr. Arafat's comments came as the International Court of Justice began three days of hearings over the legal consequences of the barrier.

Israel says the combination of walls, razor-wire fences and trenches is needed to protect against terror attacks, while Palestinians and other critics say it is an attempt by Israel to lay down de facto borders and grab as much Palestinian land as possible in the process.

At the same time, Israeli security agencies are reported to be on high alert against attacks that might be timed to coincide with the court hearings in The Hague.

The heightened state of security follows a suicide bomb attack in Jerusalem on Sunday, which killed eight people. The attack was claimed by the armed wing of Mr. Arafat's political party, and was carried out by a man from a West Bank village in an area where the security barrier has not yet been built.