Israel ordered to remove barrier, must compensate Palestinians

THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- The highest U.N. court issued a sweeping condemnation of Israel's occupation policies Friday, siding with the Palestinians in declaring that Israel must tear down the 425-mile-long security barrier it is building in the West Bank.

In a sharply worded advisory opinion -- far harsher than Israel expected -- the International Court of Justice said Israel should compensate Palestinians harmed by the structure and return property confiscated for its construction.

In addition to finding that the barrier violates international law, the court also called for a negotiated peace settlement that would see the establishment of a Palestinian state "as soon as possible."

The 15 international judges were unexpectedly united in backing the majority of the decisions by a vote of 14 to 1. Only the American judge dissented, in line with Washington's position that the court is not the appropriate venue for considering the security barrier.

The decision cannot be imposed on Israel, but the Palestinians and the Arab League said they would seek action at the United Nations to force Israel to comply.

The ruling came in response to a request by the U.N. General Assembly in December for an opinion on the legality of the barrier -- a complex of high concrete walls, razor-wire fences, trenches and watch towers.

Much of it is near the pre-1967 border, but parts cut deep into the West Bank, isolating more than 200,000 Palestinians from their neighbors and livelihoods, the court found.

'Great day for Palestine'The ruling was an unequivocal call "that this wall must be stopped, must be brought down," said Palestinian U.N. observer Nasser Al-Kidwa. He called it "a great day for Palestine and a great day for all those who believe in international law."

Israel says the barrier is necessary to block suicide bombers who have killed hundreds of Israelis in the last four years, and points to a sharp drop in the number of casualties since construction began.

Palestinians say -- and the court agreed -- the barrier could lead to the demarcation of a new border and be "tantamount to de facto annexation."

If security were the only issue, the Palestinians said, the barrier could be built on the Israeli side of the 1967 border.

"Israel is under an obligation to terminate its breaches of international law; 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, to dismantle forthwith the structure therein situated," said the ruling, read by court president Shi Jiuyong of China.

The 59-page decision was far more critical than Israel anticipated, going beyond the issue of the wall to declare Israeli settlements illegal and accuse Israel of taking action to deny Palestinians their right to self-determination.

Israel gave no indication it would comply with the ruling.

"As long as terror continues, Israel will have no choice but to defend its citizens," said Israeli legal adviser Daniel Taub. "If there were no terror, there would be no fence."

But the court said it was not convinced the wall, on its planned route, "was the only means to safeguard the interests of Israel against the peril which it has invoked as justification for that construction."

The Bush administration denounced the ruling.

"We've always said that is not the appropriate forum to resolve what is a political issue," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, adding that a political agreement was the only means to a solution.

Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry said he was disappointed by the ruling. "The fence is an important tool in Israel's fight against terrorism. It is not a matter for the ICJ."

Israel, which submitted its position to the court in writing and has been supported by Washington with its veto-wielding seat on the U.N. Security Council, insisted the court has no authority in the matter.

Armed with the court ruling, Arab nations were quick to announce they will call on the General Assembly next week for a resolution to enforce the decision.

"This decision calls on Israel to destroy this wall and desist from further actions," said Ambassador Yahya Mahmassani, the Arab League's representative at the United Nations. "Israel is in violation of international law, of international legitimacy, and the General Assembly now will be called upon to look into this matter."

The ruling was certain to deepen Israelis' perception that the world does not appreciate the terror threat they face.

"I lost everything I had. I lost my whole family," said Avi Ohayon, whose wife and two sons were killed by a Palestinian gunman. But the judges "were not willing to hear me. They should have judged for the right to live."