The International Court of Justice in The Hague has ruled that the barrier Israel is building in the West Bank violates international law, and it says the United Nations should take action to stop its construction. The court demanded that Israel tear down those parts of the barrier that have already been built.
In an advisory opinion requested by the U.N. General Assembly, the court found that the barrier, or the wall, as the court called it, infringes the right of Palestinians to self-determination and is, therefore, a breach of Israel's obligation to respect that right.
Presiding judge Shi Jiuyong says that, despite Israel's protests that the barrier is essential to its security, it could amount to a de facto annexation of occupied Palestinian territory.
"The court considers that Israel cannot rely on the right of self-defense or on a state of necessity in order to preclude the wrongfulness of the construction of the wall," the judge said. "The court, accordingly, finds that construction of the wall and its associated regimen are contrary to international law."
He says the barrier extended deep into the West Bank to encompass Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory.
"The route of the wall, as fixed by the Israeli government, includes within a closed area to which a special administrative region applies, some 80 percent of the settlers living in the occupied Palestinian territory," he said. "Moreover, it is apparent from an examination of a map available to the court that the wall's sinuous route has been traced in such a way as to include in that area the great majority of the Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem."
The court's also says Israel should compensate Palestinians who have been negatively affected by the barrier and return land seized to construct it.
In addition, the court rejects Israeli arguments that it had no right to issue an opinion on the barrier. Israel says it is a bilateral matter between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel also argues that the court can only hear disputes between existing states and that Palestine is not, in fact, a state. But Judge Shi says the court does have jurisdiction.
"The court concludes not only that it has jurisdiction to give an opinion on the question put to it by the General Assembly but also that there is no compelling reason for it to use its discretionary power not to give that opinion," said Judge Jiuyong.
The court says it is now up to the U.N. Security Council and the General Assembly to consider what action is required to end what it calls the illegal situation resulting from the construction of the wall.
The International Court of Justice is the United Nation's principal judicial organ. At work since 1946, it acts either when asked to settle disputes among its member states or, as it did in this case, give advisory opinions.
Although the court's opinion is not legally binding, Susan Breau, a fellow at Britain's Institute for International and Comparative Law, describes it as being significant.
"That is an opinion of the court that goes back to the General Assembly," she said. "In other words, the member states are now under an obligation to consider this opinion, so it's not simply window-dressing. It is a significant opinion that has to be considered."
Ms. Breau says the General Assembly might draft a resolution calling for the Israeli barrier to be dismantled. But she says such a move in the Security Council would not prosper because the United States, Israel's ally, would probably veto it.