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World Court Concludes Israel Barrier Hearings, No Decision Announced - 2004-02-25


Three days of hearings over the legality of the West Bank barrier concluded Wednesday at the World Court, with dozens of Muslim countries backing Palestinian arguments that the barrier is illegal and will block the creation of a viable two-state solution to the Mideast conflict.

On this third and final day of hearings, protesters from both sides stayed away, leaving the streets of The Hague quiet again and the judges to consider their decision. No date has yet been set for that, yet.

But Monique Chemillier-Gendreau, a French lawyer arguing on behalf of the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference, asked judges to issue a finding that condemns Israel for building the barrier, demands its destruction, and remedies the violations it has caused.

"Because the wall, which is a disproportionate response to attacks in themselves unacceptable, the wall is the worst possible response because it is in turn a massive violation of rights and law," she said.

Her presentation was the last of 15 heard by the court, the U.N.'s highest judicial body, which was asked by the General Assembly to render an urgent advisory opinion on the legality of the barrier.

All of the oral arguments, from Belize's to Bangladesh's, sided with the Palestinians. On Tuesday, Jordan, which fears an influx of Palestinians fleeing the West Bank, argued that the barrier is a direct threat to its stability.

Earlier in the day, Michael Bothe spoke for the Arab League. He argued that the barrier goes well beyond security concerns and is really meant to consolidate unlawful Israeli settlements, changing the legal status quo of the occupied territories.

"The wall does not stand between terrorists and potential victims," he argued. "It stands between the farmer and his land, between the employee and his employer, between the merchant and client, between child and school, between patient and doctor, between families who want to unite, between the faithful and his or her holy places. As a matter of international law, it does not belong there at all."

But the Israelis say this isn't a matter of law. They say they need the barrier for self-defense, and that this court has no jurisdiction to determine how they go about it.

Although Israel is officially boycotting the proceedings, officials have been at the court to make their views known. Foreign Ministry legal expert Daniel Taub says he hopes the court pays attention to its written arguments - arguments shared by the United States and many European Union countries. The court, he says, has no right to intervene in a political dispute and undermine the road map for peace.

"But we care ultimately about the lives of our civilians and we'll do whatever is necessary to ensure that in the absence of action by Palestinians so far to stop terrorism that the 935 people we've buried so far because of Palestinian terrorism will be the last," he said.

However the court rules, its decision is non-binding. Israel has said it will continue building its barrier, which it calls an unfortunate necessity, whatever the outcome here. But Palestinians hope a ruling in their favor will be important in the court of public opinion, one that could eventually lead to international sanctions against Israel.

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