Palestinians angered by U.S. opposition to hearing on West Bank

Sunday, February 1, 2004

JERUSALEM -- A top Palestinian official told a visiting U.S. envoy Saturday that Palestinians were angered over Washington's opposition to an international court hearing on the Israeli barrier to seal off the West Bank.

The expansive complex of trenches, fences, walls and razor wire, has become one of the most contentious issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and both sides see the upcoming hearing as important to determining the project's fate.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat told State Department official David Satterfield that Palestinian leaders were upset with a U.S. position that the International Court of Justice should not consider the legality of the Israeli-built barrier.

The barrier is about one-quarter complete and will eventually stretch 440 miles. In some places its route roughly matches the West Bank boundary that Israeli forces crossed in the 1967 Mideast war. In others, it zigzags deep into West Bank land.

Israel says the barrier is crucial to stopping suicide bombers. The Palestinians say it's a brazen move to grab land and to crush chances for an independent Palestinian state.

The court in The Hague, Netherlands, is to begin hearings on Feb. 23.

Both sides submitted arguments to the court by Friday's deadline. Israel argued the judges have no jurisdiction, while the Palestinians said construction on occupied West Bank land is illegal.

U.S. against hearings

The Bush administration opposes parts of the barrier that dip into the West Bank. But it submitted a statement to the court saying only states involved -- not the U.N. General Assembly -- can determine whether the court could rule in disputes among countries.

The court is the highest judicial body of the United Nations and took on the case at the request of the General Assembly. Its ruling on the barrier's legality is nonbinding, but both sides have invested great effort in the case.

Several other countries -- namely Britain -- also are opposed to the hearings.

"I cannot understand it," Erekat said. "We seek to use diplomacy against the wall" in going to the United Nations Security Council and the court of justice, "and we find these countries, the U.S. and Britain, trying to shut the door in our faces."

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled said he hopes objections from the United States and other countries will force the case the case to be dropped.

"Israel is not alone in its arguments and we hope these arguments will be seriously considered by the court," he said.

Meanwhile, a small Israeli force acting on a tip moved quickly into Bethlehem on Saturday, arrested two suspected militants and left before sunrise, the second quick raid in the West Bank town after a deadly suicide bombing.

The swift action followed a 12-hour military raid on Friday to destroy the home of the Palestinian policeman who had blown himself up on a bus in Jerusalem the day before, killing 11 people.

Israel's pinpoint raids in Bethlehem marked an uncharacteristically restrained response to the attack, and Israeli officials said they were tempering their reaction to avoid worsening the plight of ordinary Palestinians.

Analysts said Israel also does not want to anger U.S. officials or invite international criticism ahead of the court case on the barrier project. After previous bombings, Israel routinely launched large-scale military raids and closures of Palestinian areas.

Police on Saturday said forensics experts identified the body of another victim of Thursday's bus bombing, raising the death toll to 11. Manbara Valdi Tzadik, 35, was a migrant worker from Ethiopia.

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