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Israel Snubs World Court in Barrier Case

Times Staff Writer

Israel will not defend the separation barrier it is building in the West Bank before the International Court of Justice because it does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction in the matter, the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced Thursday.

Israel had been dropping strong hints in recent days that it would refuse to debate the merits of the barrier before the court, which sits in The Hague. The Jewish state has already filed a deposition in which Israeli officials defend construction of the barrier while rejecting any role for the court.

The Palestinians -- who had hoped to in effect put Israel on trial for building a barrier that appropriates large swaths of West Bank land -- responded with disappointment and anger but said they were not surprised that Israel refused to participate in such a highly public forum.

“The Israelis are very well aware that they cannot defend their position, that this is a losing battle for them,” said Nabil abu Rudaineh, an aide to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. “They know they do not have a case, so they do not wish to make a case.”

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Sharon’s office said the decision was made by the prime minister in consultation with five senior ministers. The hearings by the court, the highest tribunal associated with the United Nations, were expected to begin as scheduled Feb. 23.

The ruling of the court, which is taking up the matter at the request of the U.N. General Assembly, will be nonbinding. The judges can still decide at an early stage to reject hearing arguments on the merits of the barrier.

In addition to Israel and the Palestinians, several dozen countries have filed legal briefs in the case. Many Western nations, including the United States, are worried that the court could set a precedent that would allow it to rule in other cases involving military actions taken against hostile states, or steps taken to put down internal uprisings.

Whatever the outcome, the court’s decision to conduct hearings represents the most serious international challenge yet to the partially built barrier, which will stretch for more than 400 miles along a route that deviates sharply in some areas from Israel’s pre-1967 border.

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The barrier is made up mainly of wire fencing but consists in some stretches of a high concrete wall. At various points, it is fortified with watchtowers, electronic sensors, trenches and a wide no man’s land on either side.

Israel insists that the barrier has already proven an effective deterrent to suicide bombings, which have caused hundreds of Israeli deaths during the last 40 months of conflict.

The Palestinians, however, denounce the barrier as a land grab that will prejudice the result of any negotiations about the border of their future state. Already, they say, thousands of Palestinians have been cut off from relatives, farms and livelihoods by the barrier.

Israeli officials said the consensus in Sharon’s government was that Israel had little to gain by acknowledging the court’s jurisdiction and then pleading a case before it.

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“No doubt, the whole issue is public relations -- or, put a little more unpleasantly, propaganda,” said Zalman Shoval, a veteran diplomat who serves as an advisor to the prime minister.

“It’s one of those things that, whichever way you deal with it, the propaganda aspect is going to remain,” said Shoval, who was not a party to the Israeli decision against arguing the case in court but nonetheless supported it.

“If we sent people to plead at the court, it would only have exacerbated this aspect of it.”

Although it will not make formal arguments before the court, Israel will have a visible official and unofficial presence during the hearings.

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The Foreign Ministry intends to have a team in The Hague to make Israel’s case outside the courtroom, and several private Israeli groups will be a vocal presence on the sidelines.

Israeli organizations representing victims of attacks by Palestinian militants intend to fly in what could be a contingent of several hundred people to take part in demonstrations in The Hague.

The Israeli rescue service Zaka -- whose ultra-Orthodox members are typically among the first to arrive at bombing scenes -- intends, with the blessing of the Israeli government, to ship the mangled skeleton of a bus -- blown up in an attack in Jerusalem last month -- for display outside the court.


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