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Europe

Israel in the Dock

Hearings on Israel's controversial security fence will begin at the International Court of Justice in the Hague Monday. But most European countries and the U.S. insist that the conflict must be resolved politically.

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Securing Israel's safety?

Is it a fence? Or a wall? On a visual level, that's a question with an easy answer -- Israel's so-called "security fence," which will run more than 600 km (373 miles), is both. But the name still makes a big difference, as Schimon Stein, Israel's ambassador to Germany, recently pointed out in an interview.

"You started talking about the anti-terror fence, let's stick to that description instead of calling it a wall, since that image provokes memories in Germany," Stein said, referring to the Berlin wall that separated the city for almost four decades.

Demonstration in Berlin gegen Mauer Israel Palästina

Critics of the fence erected a fake wall at Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie on Feb. 7.

The Israeli barrier or cordon has become so controversial that it overshadows many problems and conflict areas in the Middle East. Protestors have erected Styrofoam models in Berlin (photo) and other European capitals. Palestinian Premier Ahmed Qureia has been accused of supporting the project he's publicly criticized via illegal cement shipments to Israel. Now, the International Court of Justice is getting involved.

Humanitarian consequences

Even humanitarian organizations such as the International Red Cross (IRC) have felt the need to comment on the issue. "We're increasingly worried about the humanitarian consequences for the Palestinian population," said Moain Kessis, the organization's spokesman in Jordan, adding that it cuts people off from water supplies, hospitals and schools. "It also separates people from their sources of income, their fields and places of work."

Zaun zwischen Palästina und Israel

A Palestinian couple walks through the fence Israel is building to separate Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The cordon is only opened three times a day for half an hour to let people pass. Several Palestinian villages on the western side of the barrier are therefore more or less cut off from their fields and adequate services housed in larger Palestinian towns on the other side. The IRC estimates that about 620,000 of the two million people living in the West Bank will suffer because of the project.

Apart from the humanitarian aspects, the conflict also centers around the question whether the barrier's location is just. In some places it crosses the so-called green line between Israel and Palestinian territory. Critics fear that Israel is trying to create a new status-quo by dividing the West Bank in two pieces. Is the location a political issue? Does it try to pre-empt peace negotiations by "cementing" visions of certain politicians?

"The location is not political but based on security concerns," Stein said. "I believe we will do everything to locate it in a way that first and foremost ensures security and secondly accommodates Palestinian needs."

Security concerns vs. land annexation

Israel's politicians emphasize that the barrier is not a way to annex Palestinian territory -- it is scheduled to be torn down once a peace settlement has been reached. They say it's meant to prevent Palestinian terrorists from entering Israel, citing Sunday's suicide bombing in Jerusalem that killed at least nine people as yet another example for its necessity.

Selbstmordanschlag in Bus in Jerusalem

Israeli police and rescue personnel work in and around a Jerusalem bus, background, struck by a suicide bombing attack on Sunday.

"Where the fence does not exist, there is terror, where it exists, the results are obvious," Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said in a radio interview.

But critics doubt that's possible as the barrier's location has effectively relocated hundreds of thousands of Palestinians on Israeli territory. Despite continuing assurances that the fence's location had nothing to do with trying to establish a future border between Israel and Palestine territories and is therefore not getting build on the green line, Israeli soldiers on Sunday also began tearing down a piece of the barrier spanning about 8 km to move it closer to the line. The original location of the barrier had cut off about 7,000 Palestinians from the West Bank as well as Israel. As requested by the United Nations, the International Court of Justice will now weigh the question of legality over the coming weeks. The judges' decisions, however, are not binding for either side.

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