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Israeli High Court to Consider Legality of Security Barrier - 2004-01-15

Israel's high court has agreed to consider the legality of a controversial West Bank security barrier, just weeks before the project is tested under international law.

Israel's high court decided Thursday that it will be the first forum to consider whether a barrier, now under construction in and around the West Bank, is lawful.

A hearing has been set for February 5, about two weeks before Israelis and Palestinians are scheduled to start presenting their arguments on the issue at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

The Israeli high court will hear a petition submitted by the Center for the Defense of the Individual - a human rights group.

The petition deals with the building of the barrier beyond the so-called Green Line, which delineates Israel from the West Bank.

Legal experts in Israel say the hearing will act, in their words, as a dress rehearsal for the Israeli defense counsel's appearance in The Hague.

The International Court is to convene February 23 after the U.N. General Assembly requested a ruling on whether Israel is legally obliged to tear down the barrier.

Some Israeli cabinet ministers are calling for the route of the barrier to be changed before the matter goes to court.

Israel's justice minister, Tommy Lapid, has warned the Jewish state risks being brought into international disrepute by crossing this line and constructing some parts of the project inside the West Bank.

The Palestinian leadership claims the barrier is an attempt by Israel to seize more land and unilaterally determine the boundaries of a future Palestinian State.

Israel denies this and says that the project is meant only to prevent Palestinians from crossing over into the Jewish State to carry out suicide bombings and other terror attacks.

Israel says that the barrier does not constitute a new political boundary and can be dismantled if and when a final peace agreement is reached with the Palestinians.