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Opinion: More at Stake for Israel Than the West Bank Barrier

Hearings on Israel's security barrier have been going on at the Hague International Court of Justice this week. While examining the issue, the court may determine that Israel is the occupier it says it is not.

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A Palestinian stands next to the barrier.

The International Court of Justice in the Hague's "Peace Palace" was asked in December 2003 to give its opinion on the construction of an immense barrier that Israel is currently building. Israel claims it's supposed to prevent suicide bombers from infiltrating the country. The Palestinians complain that it's meant to create a fait accompli and to usurp more Palestinian land.

The three-day hearing that started early Monday at the Hague court shows what a narrow path the 15 judges must tread. It is apparent that their task involves a delicate tightrope walk between politics, propaganda and judicial consideration. But only the latter should tip the scales. It is to the Palestinians' credit that they -- despite being the principle people affected -- have placed this very question in the foreground of their argument.

Barrier encroaches on Palestinian land

At the same time, the issue encompasses much more than just construction of the barrier. For most people don't seem to find much fault with the construction itself, if only the wall or fence ran along the 1949 ceasefire line and not onto Palestinian territory. If the barrier's course didn't carve up villages, destroy fields and further harass the Palestinians. And if the construction wasn't there to protect illegal settlements, and as such represents the basis for a possible border in the future.

Altogether this contravenes international treaties, such as the Hague Convention on war or the Fourth Geneva Convention, assuming one holds that the territories Israel conquered in 1967 are, in terms of international law, "occupied territories." Israel, however, has vehemently repudiated that issue for years, saying the territories are "disputed" not "occupied."

An issue of occupation

Thus, the International Court of Justice will also have to decide, whether they like or not, if under international law this is an issue of occupation. That is how the rest of the world sees it, though no one has yet established as much in a legally-binding manner.

It's sure to take weeks for the judges to agree on wording. But there's hardly a doubt what the result will look like: It will speak of "occupation" and the rights and duties of the occupier. For years, much of what Israel has done in the territories has clearly contravened these rights and duties, from building Jewish settlements to the dispossession of Arab land and the massive obstruction of the Palestinian civil population, to the current erection of the barrier.

The international court's decisions are not binding, but they do carry weight. That's reason enough for Israel to be concerned -- but because of the court's alleged partiality. Instead, Israel should be concerned solely because of its own disregard for international conventions and international law.

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