The International Court of Justice in the Hague on Friday ruled that the construction of a wall diving Israel and Palestinian territories violates international law. The UN had requested the non-binding ruling.
The fence has been compared to the Berlin wall
While the court's decision is not binding and simply serves as an advisory opinion, judges said that parts of the fence would have to be torn down.
"The court is of the view that the United Nations, and
especially the General Assembly and the Security Council, should consider what further action is required to bring to an end the illegal situation resulting from the construction of the wall," said Judge Shi Jiuyong of China as he read the court's ruling, according to Reuters news agency.
The judge also urged the United Nations to "redouble its
efforts" to end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians
which it said posed a threat to international peace.
"The construction of the wall being built by Israel, the
occupying power, in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including in and around East Jerusalem, and its associated regime, are contrary to international law," said a copy of the verdict, according to AFP news agency.
"Israel is under an obligation to terminate its breaches of
international law," it added. "It is under an obligation to cease forthwith the works of construction of the wall being built in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including in and around East Jerusalem, (and) to dismantle forthwith the structure therein situated."
Israel's Supreme Court had already issued a similar ruling.
Israel had been anxiously awaiting the court's decision: Israeli officials expect that political pressure at the UN will increase -- including pressure to condemn Israel's actions in the Security Council.
Since this would make it even more difficult for both sides to move ahead with the peace process, both US and European officials had argued against the court taking up the case.
Describing it as a monstrous and obstructive plan, the EU did take a stand against construction of the fence, which is expected to span 700 kilometers (435 miles) upon completion. But the 25-member bloc's representatives also insisted that bilateral problems should be solved by the parties involved and not by outsiders.
The International Court of Justice usually only takes on cases involving two states if both parties have agreed to the proceedings. In this particular situation, Israel had strictly rejected the court's review.
But at the end of 2003, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan -- as requested by the UN general assembly -- did ask the court to give an advisory opinion. The court convened in February to listen to Arab, but also other international opinions about the case.
Fence only legal on Israeli land?
In the absence of Israel, the EU and the US, a consensus was obvious and not surprising: Recognizing Israel's need for security, the country could still only construct such a fence on its own territory to protect itself against terrorists -- the reason for the construction, according to Israeli officials.
The fence has cut off some Palestinians from their fields, schools and hospitals
But the current fence, which actually is a concrete wall in some places, is exclusively on Palestinian land. It separates villages from their agricultural fields, almost completely surrounds other towns and makes life difficult for the people who live near it.
Even Israel's Supreme Court accepted the hardship on Palestinians imposed by the fence, ruling recently that enclosing entire villages was illegal and a violation of human rights.
Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon's government agreed to move the fence in one particular case to follow the court's order. Other than that, Israel's leadership seems set on continuing with construction of the fence.
Ruling harmful to peace negotiations?
While Israel presents it as a security measure, Palestinians and others worry that the fence's course will be identical with Israel's plans for a future border with a Palestinian state. This would significantly reduce the Palestinian territory without both sides agreeing to such a step.
Both the Oslo agreement and the so-called "road map to peace" expressly required both sides to agree on any decisions and said outsiders should not predetermine decisions.
A hearing before the International Court of Justice
The court's ruling will not predetermine anything, but much is going to depend on what the Palestinians and the UN will make of it. Should the ruling become the basis for sanctions against Israel, this would probably be violating the spirit of the "road map."
The Palestinians don't seem to agree with this: For them, Israel has not only blocked the way to some of their villages, but also the way to peace by erecting the fence.