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Israeli High Court Hears Case Challenging West Bank Security Barrier

Israel's Supreme Court opened hearings Monday into the legality of a West Bank barrier that the government says is aimed at stopping attacks on Israelis but which civil liberties groups say causes Palestinians hardship. The hearings is a preview of what may come when the International Court of Justice in The Hague hears the issue later this month.

Two human rights groups brought are presenting arguments to the court. The Center for the Defense of the Individual (HaMoked)is asking the court to order that the barrier be rerouted along the Green Line, the boundary that existed before Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war.

The court will also hear a petition from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, or ACRI, which is demanding that the army drop its requirement that Palestinians trapped by the fence apply for permits to cross it.

ACRI says thousands of Palestinians are caught in what amounts to a no-man's land, and some have been declared illegal residents in their own homes.

On Sunday, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that the route of the barrier is to be shortened. Zalman Shoval said the change is being made to relieve some of the pressure on the Palestinians.

The barrier is an assortment of walls, fences and trenches. In places it cuts deep into the West Bank and encircles several Palestinian towns and villages, cutting tens of thousands of Palestinians off from their farmland, schools and social services.

Israel insists that the barrier is necessary to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers and other attackers who have killed hundreds of Israelis in the past three years of violence. Palestinians charge it is a land grab aimed at preventing them from creating a state.

Later this month, the International Court of Justice in The Hague, will hear the case.

Israel has presented a brief challenging the authority of the world court to rule on the issue.