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U.N. court rules West Bank barrier illegal

Wall 'gravely' infringes on Palestinian rights, it finds

This aerial view shows part of the barrier separating the outskirts of Jerusalem, top, from the West Bank.
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U.N. court rules Israel's security barrier violates international law.
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International Court of Justice (ICJ)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CNN) -- The International Court of Justice has said the barrier Israel is building to seal off the West Bank violates international law because it infringes on the rights of Palestinians.

In an advisory opinion issued Friday in The Hague, the U.N. court urged the Israelis to remove it from occupied land.

The nonbinding opinion also found that Israel was obligated to return confiscated land or make reparations for any destruction or damage to homes, businesses and farms caused by the barrier's construction.

The court noted that Israel has argued that the barrier is "temporary" and its "sole purpose is to enable it effectively to combat terrorist attacks launched from the West Bank."

Palestinian leaders say the barrier amounts to an illegitimate land grab by Israelis and an attempt by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to unilaterally set the borders between Israel and a Palestinian state, rather than negotiating with them as part of a final settlement.

The Palestinians also charge that the plan violates the "road map" to peace, the series of confidence-building measures and negotiations designed to lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state existing side-by-side in peace with Israel.

About a third of the planned 425-mile barrier has been built since 2002. In some areas, the barrier is a fence; in others, it takes the form of a concrete wall. (Interactive: West Bank barrier)

The court said that though Israel was entitled to protect its citizens, there was no persuasive evidence that the barrier was necessary to attain Israel's "security objectives."

The advisory opinion was sought by the U.N. General Assembly after Arab states proposed a resolution to ban the structure.

In October, the General Assembly adopted that resolution, which demanded that "Israel stop and reverse the construction of the [barrier] in the occupied Palestinian territory," the court noted in its advisory opinion.

The barrier "gravely" infringes on a number of rights of Palestinians living in the West Bank and "constitutes breaches by Israel of various of its obligations under international humanitarian law," the court said.

The court concluded that Israel is obligated under international law not only to stop building the barrier but also to dismantle the existing structure.

"This court is calling upon nations not to help, not to talk, not to recognize any of the things Israel is creating by this wall," Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat told CNN.

"Call it a fence, call it a wall, call it barrier -- whatever -- I don't care," Erakat said.

"The fact is Israel is seizing this opportunity now and building this wall in order to confiscate land and to create policies on the ground and to have final negotiations by dictations rather than negotiations."

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat called the court's opinion "a victory for our people, for all the free and proud people and for every freedom movement in the world."

Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told CNN, "This is disputed land, not Palestinian, or we claim public ownership."

He also said that the ownership of the land must be resolved in "political negotiation."

But "Palestinians do not provide us with a peace partner because Yasser Arafat, instead of generally coming to the table and negotiations in peace, is sending these terrorists.

"So, I think that has to be resolved when we have a real political partner, and I think we will," Netanyahu said.

U.N. sanctions may be sought

In New York, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman, said he does not expect U.N. sanctions to result from the court action.

"I don't think it will come to that. This is a nonbinding advisory opinion and therefore whether a country complies with it or not is not something that can or should carry sanctions with it," he said.

Under U.N. rules, the General Assembly can recommend sanctions but only the Security Council can impose those sanctions.

Yahya Mahmassani, the Arab League's permanent representative to the United Nations, said the issue is likely to be raised before the General Assembly early next week.

"Israel is in violation of international law, of international legitimacy, and the General Assembly now will be called upon to look at this matter," he said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was critical of the court's action, saying "it could impede efforts to achieve progress toward a negotiated settlement between Israelis and Palestinians."

He said the ruling had the potential to "distract from the political work at hand," in particular the road map.

"The way to resolve the issues between Israelis and Palestinians, the way to create a Palestinian state, is through the political process, through the road map process," he said. "And that's where the United States continues to place its emphasis."

A statement from the Israeli government said, "Israel calls on the international community not to lend their hand to the ongoing Palestinian attempts to use international [forums] to avoid fulfilling their commitment to fight terror."

Israel not part of hearings

Israel did not participate in the hearings, saying beforehand that the barrier was a defense maneuver over which the world court had no jurisdiction.

The Israel Defense Forces, on its Web site, says the "Anti-Terrorism Fence ... substantially improves the ability of the Israel Defense Forces to prevent the infiltration of terrorists and criminal elements into Israel."

A graphic on the site said that since September 2000, more than 500 Israelis have been killed in suicide attacks that originated from the West Bank when there was no barrier, but only one suicide bomber came from the Gaza strip, where there is a barrier.

A statement from the Israeli government said, "Israel calls on the international community not to lend their hand to the ongoing Palestinian attempts to use international [forums] to avoid fulfilling their commitment to fight terror."

"There would be no fence whatsoever if Palestinians fulfilled their obligation," senior Israeli adviser Raanan Gissin told CNN. "Fences are reversible. As we build this fence we can remove it.

"The human life of 1,000 people who died as a result of suicide bombings that emanated from this territory are not reversible."

Israel is not listed as one of the states recognizing the compulsory jurisdiction of the 15-member court, according to the court's Web site.

The international court, created in 1946, is the main legal body of the United Nations and is usually called upon to settle disputes between states.

Israel seized the West Bank from Jordan and Gaza from Egypt during the 1967 Six-Day War and began building settlements there soon after.

There are about 230,000 Israelis living in West Bank settlements. Gaza is home to about 7,500 Jewish settlers.

The ruling was the second against the barrier in the past two weeks. Israel's high court ruled June 30 that a section of the barrier under construction must be rerouted to avoid infringing on the lives of 35,000 Palestinians.

The court reviewed a 25-mile (40 kilometer) section of the barrier, and ruled that Israel's government must redraw 19 miles (30 kilometers) of the fence that would run west and northwest of Jerusalem. The court halted construction on the section in March. (Full story)

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