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Israelis Watch Nervously as Court Weighs Case on Security Fence

TEL AVIV — Officially Israel considered the hearings on its security fence, held this week at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, to be virtually meaningless. Jerusalem declined to appear before the court, instead submitting a preliminary affidavit questioning the court’s jurisdiction in the case and rejecting the allegations against Israel.

Public response belied the official nonchalance, however. Every major media outlet sent special teams to the Netherlands, and the first day of hearings was covered live and nonstop on Israeli television and radio. Israelis were riveted by the spectacle in the streets of The Hague, where Palestinians and their supporters marched to protest the fence while groups of Israelis, backed by Jews and Christians from across Europe, marched to protest Palestinian terrorism. Adding to the spectacle, Palestinians paraded in the West Bank and Gaza on the opening day of the hearing, backed by smaller demonstrations in Cairo, Amman and other Arab capitals. For many Israelis watching the events, what was on trial in The Hague was not a particular wall in a particular location but their right to defend themselves against terrorism.

If anybody needed a reminder of what all the fuss was about, it arrived in chilling fashion in Jerusalem a day before the hearings began. Eight people were killed and close to 60 wounded Sunday when a suicide bomber detonated a charge on a bus just up the street from the King David Hotel. The bomber came from Bethlehem, a few miles south of Jerusalem. Supporters of the fence noted immediately that had that section of the barrier been in place, his entry to the capital would have been much harder.

Avi Dichter, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet General Security Service, appearing Tuesday before the Knesset Foreign Relations and Defense Committee, cited statistics showing that suicide bombings had sharply declined in those areas where the fence already has been built facing the northern West Bank. He called for urgent completion of the fence’s Jerusalem portion, saying that Jerusalem had become the main target for Palestinian terrorists and that if he could “push a button” to finish the fence in the capital he would.

But Dichter also raised new questions about the fence’s effectiveness. He said Palestinians are developing long-range rockets in Gaza, where a fence already exists. He warned that Israel might be forced to launch a full-scale anti-terror operation in the densely populated Gaza district, similar to the so-called Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank two years ago.

Israel’s newfound solidarity in the face of the international furor largely obscured the fact that the fence was deeply divisive among Israelis until very recently. Prime Minister Sharon himself repeatedly voiced doubts over the wisdom of the move and kept construction on a low burner until last fall. His supporters in the settler movement actively opposed the barrier, fearing it would represent a first step toward eventual Israeli disengagement from the West Bank.

In the end, Palestinian and international opposition to erection of the fence became one of the most persuasive arguments for it, uniting former opponents on the right with longtime advocates on the left around the practical measure of blocking terrorists’ access to Israeli cities.

The domestic debate has heated up anew, however, this time around Sharon’s still-murky plan for unilateral disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

Sharon continued to insist this week that he would not be deterred by right-wing protests, but he declined to give a starting date for a pullout. The government narrowly survived three separate no-confidence votes — one by a bare 46-to-45 margin — after coalition members from the right-wing National Union and National Religious parties absented themselves to protest the talk of disengagement. One lawmaker, Aryeh Eldad of the National Union, became the first coalition member to break ranks and vote against the government since Sharon took office in 2001.

Israel sent out feelers to Egypt to explore its readiness to police the border with Gaza and prevent smuggling should Israel opt for full withdrawal. Palestinian Authority security figures told Israeli interviewers that they were prepared to take responsibility for security on their side once Israel withdraws, calming Israeli and U.S. fears that a vacuum might be created into which Islamic extremists might move.

In testimony in The Hague, Palestinian officials charged that the barrier put intolerable and illegal burdens on the lives of Palestinians under Israeli rule, and that the purpose of the fence was not to defend Israel from terrorism but to annex land.

Israel claimed in its affidavit that the Palestinian Authority is not a state as defined by the U.N. Charter, and therefore has no standing to bring a complaint before the world court. It also charged that the court is biased, as suggested by its use of the term “wall” — favored by the Palestinians — even though 95% of the barrier is in fact a fence rather than a concrete wall.

But Nasser Al-Kidwa, the Palestinian representative to the United Nations, gave an impassioned speech describing the fence as seriously disrupting daily life in the West Bank. “The wall is not only a physical structure but a whole regime,” he claimed. “Whole communities were caught between the settlements and the fence.”

Also backing the Palestinian case was an array of third-party litigants whose standing seemed less than clear to Israelis. Representatives of Cuba, Belize and Bangladesh offered testimony about the fence’s cruelty and called for the justices to declare it illegal.

More disturbing to Israelis, Jordan appeared before the court Tuesday and warned that the barrier would make life so hard for Palestinians that they would flee into Jordan, straining its resources and upsetting a delicate demographic balance. The head of the Jordanian delegation, Prince Zeid Al-Hussein, showed the court photographs of the fence cutting through Palestinian villages and lands.

But the prince emphasized that had Israel built the fence along the Green Line, Jordan would not have appeared before the court. “Attempts to achieve a diplomatic agreement between Israel and the Palestinians have not made progress over the past months and there is little chance for any progress being made as long as the wall is being built,” he said.

Responding to such criticisms, as well as to American pressure, Israel began moving portions of the fence last week, tearing up several million dollars’ worth of previously built barrier in order to ease movement for Palestinians and lessen Israel’s lines of defense. The head of the army’s technology and logistics branch, Brig. Gen. Eran Ophir, told reporters this week that the fence’s planned route had been shortened to about 400 miles, 50 miles shorter than the route approved by the government last October. He said much of the dismantled divider could be reused elsewhere as the barrier continues southward.

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