Israel’s West Bank barrier
Four years ago this week, on July 9, 2004, the International Court of Justice in The Hague, known as the World Court, ruled in an advisory opinion that the wall and fence barrier which Israel was building in the West Bank was illegal under international law and that Palestinians affected by it should be compensated. Israel responded by dismissing the decision as politically motivated and defended the barrier, which it calls the “security fence”, as an effective response to “Palestinian terrorism”. Israel says the barrier, whose projected route of fences and walls snakes through the West Bank for over 700 km, has saved Israeli lives by preventing a continuation of attacks, notably suicide bombings.
The United Nations General Assembly voted later in July 2004 to demand that Israel comply with the decision of the World Court. Following the court ruling, the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators – the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia – also reaffirmed an earlier statement which said “We note the Government of Israel’s pledge that the barrier is a security rather than political barrier and should be temporary rather than permanent. We continue to note with great concern the actual and proposed route of the barrier, particularly as it results in confiscation of Palestinian land, cuts off the movement of people and groups, and undermines Palestinians’ trust in the roadmap (peace) process by appearing to prejudge the final borders of the future Palestinian state.”
There is continued international pressure from otherwise friendly governments who say Israel should build on its own land, not occupied Palestinian territory, and should evacuate Jewish settlements in the West Bank. There have also been repeated complaints from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during peace negotiations resumed under U.S. sponsorship last year.
But Israel has continued to work on the barrier. The Israeli Supreme Court ordered part of the route to be change last year in a judgment which found in favour of Palestinians in the town of Bilin who had complained the barrier would cut their farmland off from their homes. Critics like the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem say that little has changed on the ground, however. It has gathered testimonies of Palestinians recounting hardships, including loss of land and access to facilities, as a result of the construction.
As the fourth anniversary of the World Court decision approaches, Israeli troops have responded to anti-barrier protests near Nilin, 20 km west of Tel Aviv, by sealing off the West Bank town since Friday. Days after a Palestinian construction worker killed three Israelis with a bulldozer on one of Jewish west Jerusalem’s busiest streets, the arguments about land and security show no sign of abating. The killer, Hosam Dwayyat, was a resident of a West Bank village that Israel annexed to its Jerusalem Municipality after it occupied the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem in 1967. As a result, like another Palestinian who killed Israelis in Jerusalem this year, he lived on the Israeli side of the barrier.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government is considering demolishing Dwayyat’s family home as a deterrent. One of his closest allies suggested the time had come to separate Arab areas from Jewish parts of Jerusalem – though Israel hopes to maintain control of Jerusalem as its ‘united’ capital, a status that has not been recognised internationally. Many Israelis accused the government and police of failures in allowing Dwayyat to mount his attack – including columnist Caroline Glick in the Jerusalem Post. But some Israelis question the long-term practicality of sealing their state off from their Palestinian neighbours, as columnist Akiva Eldar, writing in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper notes. As another anniversary passes in the Middle East, there is no sign of an end to complex questions involving competing demands for resources and security among the various communities.