The International Court of Justice may have ruled it illegal, but Israel’s West Bank security barrier has at least one new supporter.
For Sammy Masrawa, it was more baptism by fire than conversion, after Masrawa witnessed a bombing that killed an Israeli woman and wounded at least 20 others in Tel Aviv on Sunday.
"I am an Arab from Jaffa, a leftist, and I was opposed to the separation fence until today," said Masrawa, who survived the attack at a downtown bus stop with mild injuries. "But the terrorists do not distinguish between Jews and Arabs. After what I saw today, I hope to set up a lobby in favor of the fence."
The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the terrorist wing of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction, said its men planted the bomb detonated by remote control to avenge Israel’s killing of its leaders. The blast was the first terrorist attack in Tel Aviv in more than six months. It left Bat Yam resident Sgt. Ma’ayan Nayim, 19, dead.
For Israeli government officials, the attack added deadly injury to the insult of the July 9 ruling at The Hague that the fence is illegal and must be dismantled.
"This morning’s act of murder is the first to have occurred under the auspices of the opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in opening remarks at his weekly Cabinet meeting. "I want to make it clear: The State of Israel completely rejects the International Court’s opinion."
"This is a one-sided opinion based solely on political considerations," Sharon continued. "The opinion completely ignores the reason for the construction of the security fence: murderous Palestinian terrorism."
Though it’s only partially complete, the fence already has saved thousands of lives, officials said, noting the dramatic decrease in successful Palestinian terrorist attacks since construction began.
In its nonbinding advisory opinion, the International Court of Justice, a U.N. body, ruled that the barrier contravenes international law, that parts of it built beyond the Green Line — the 1949 armistice line between Israel and the West Bank –must be dismantled and that Palestinians whose land was confiscated must be compensated. The court said that the barrier could impede the Palestinians’ right to self-rule.
Israel argues that the fence is a legitimate means of self-defense, and that the court had no jurisdiction to rule on what is essentially a political conflict.
The key question is to what extent the court’s ruling might aggravate Israel’s isolation on the international stage. Israeli officials see the Palestinian appeal to the court as part of a longstanding strategy to delegitimize the Jewish state and bring it to its knees through international ostracism.
The idea is to have Israel stigmatized as a pariah state, much the way South Africa was before the collapse of the apartheid regime.
Indeed, calling the fence the "apartheid wall" — as Palestinians and their supporters often do — is an overt attempt to associate Israel with the old South Africa.
The first major success of this Palestinian strategy was the 1975 U.N. resolution denigrating Zionism as racism. That resolution was overturned in December 1991, after the launch of the Madrid peace process.
When peacemaking bogged down a decade later, the Palestinians resurrected their strategy, scoring a success at the U.N. World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa in August-September 2001. Now they have followed it up with the ICJ ruling.
But there’s a difference. The anti-Zionism campaign sought to delegitimize the founding principle of Jewish statehood, but the attack on the fence aims to delegitimize Israel through its occupation of supposedly Palestinian territory.
That can cut two ways, however. It may be harder for Israel to defend against accusations of occupation, but that critique carries within it an implicit recognition of Israel’s right to exist within its pre-1967 borders.
In an article in Ha’aretz, Tel Aviv University law professor Eyal Benvenisti writes that those who would deny legitimacy to the Zionist enterprise may not want to invoke the ICJ ruling.
Israel’s battle now will focus mainly on Europe. With Palestinians hoping to translate the ICJ ruling into anti-Israel measures at the United Nations, European and American support will be important in the General Assembly and, even more so, in the Security Council.
The General Assembly sent the issue of the fence to the court last December, asking it to prepare an advisory opinion on the "legal consequences arising from the construction of the wall in the Occupied Palestinian territory."
Israeli officials say the language of the request essentially prejudged its outcome: The Palestinians call the barrier a wall though over 90 percent of it actually is a fence and could be moved. Israel also does not consider the West Bank "Occupied Palestinian territory" but rather "disputed territory" whose status must be determined in negotiations, as per Security Council Resolution 242, which has guided Israeli-Arab peace talks for the past 25 years.
Considering the way the General Assembly presented the issue to the court, Foreign Ministry Jonathan Peled said, it was no surprise that the court ignored the heart of the problem and the very reason for the fence: Palestinian terrorism.
Dore Gold, a former Israeli envoy to the United Nations and now an adviser to Sharon, told JTA that while Israel respects international law, it opposes the politicization of international bodies such as the ICJ.
"The terms of reference that the court was given by the U.N. could only result in a decision that was tantamount to the outlawing of the shield, while condoning the continued use of the sword," he said.
Palestinian leaders were overjoyed at the ruling. Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat called it a "victory for justice," while P.A. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei described the ruling as ‘historic"
The leader of Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist group, called Saturday for Palestinians to step up attacks on Israelis.
"What removes the barrier," said Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, " is the will, determination and resistance of Palestinians, with the backing of the [Arab people]."
Europe has been sending mixed signals. Though many European nations were among the more than 30 mainly Western countries opposed to referring the matter to the ICJ, the European Union put out a statement after the ruling saying it corresponded with the E.U. view that the fence is illegal.
Foreign Minister Bernard Bot of Holland, which currently holds the E.U.’s rotating presidency, threatened Israel with unspecified "consequences" if its "dialogue with the E.U." over the fence and other diplomatic matters did not improve.
In trying to drum up international support, Israel will argue that the court ruling was too one-sided to be taken seriously. Moreover, in circumscribing Israel’s right to self-defense while saying nothing against Palestinian terrorism, the ruling is more likely to encourage more terrorism than a peaceful solution, Israel will argue.
Israel’s own Supreme Court has ruled that the government must strike a better balance between legitimate defense needs and Palestinian human rights. It questioned the route chosen in several areas, and more complaints are under consideration.
Despite Sharon’s forthright rejection of the ICJ’s decision, he remains bound by whatever the Israeli Supreme Court rules. And, in anticipation of further Supreme Court decisions, Israel is considering rerouting some unbuilt portions closer to the Green Line, causing far less disruption to Palestinian life — while, some fear, providing less security for Israelis.
Israel will say the measures were taken in deference to its own Supreme Court, but such moves also might help placate the international community.