Israel to skip hearing on West Bank fence


JERUSALEM - Israel said yesterday that it would not participate in a hearing this month at the International Court of Justice on the legality of the separation barrier under construction in the West Bank.

The court is to hear oral arguments at The Hague beginning Feb. 23. and is expected to issue a non-binding ruling on the barrier, which has stirred fierce opposition from Palestinians and much of the international community.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office said in a statement that the court "has no authority to discuss the terrorism prevention fence since it concerns Israel's basic right of self-defense."

Israel has built about one-quarter of the winding barrier, which is ultimately expected to amount to more than 400 miles of fencing. Under the route approved by Sharon's government, about 15 percent of West Bank land would be on the Israeli side of the barrier, according to the United Nations.

Israel says that the barrier is essential to prevent Palestinian suicide bombings and that it cuts into the West Bank to incorporate Jewish settlements. Palestinians argue that the barrier's route takes large chunks of land that they are claiming for a future state.

Israel submitted written statements to the international court Jan. 30, and would be entitled, along with the Palestinians and other governments, to make relatively brief oral arguments.

But Israel does not recognize the court's authority on the matter and is not required to have representatives in court.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the court is addressing only "half of the question," adding: "It is looking at Israel's security measures but not at Palestinian terrorism."

However, Israel might send officials to The Hague to speak to the large news media contingent that is expected to cover the case.

ZAKA, an Israeli volunteer group that cleans up human remains at suicide bombings, says its members plan to appear at The Hague with a bus that was destroyed by a bomber.

Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib said Israel's decision not to participate in oral arguments should not affect the case.

"There is a dispute, and it is creating violent confrontations," Khatib said. "We think it is important to exploit any legitimate venue which can strengthen our position."

Some Palestinians "believe there is no point in trying to take advantage of international law and that the only way to move toward our goals is through violence," Khatib said. "Others believe we should use and depend on legal approaches. I think this latter approach should be encouraged."

In December, the U.N. General Assembly referred the case to the international court. A ruling against Israel is highly unlikely to halt construction of the fence. But it could increase international pressure on Israel and lead to further debate on the issue at the United Nations.

Israel is pressing ahead with construction but is also seeking to make the barrier more palatable to the United States.

Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinians marched through Gaza City yesterday, in mass funerals for some of the 15 Palestinians killed in gunbattles with Israeli troops the day before.

Hamas, the Islamic faction that has carried out the largest number of suicide bombings against Israel, called on its cells to launch new attacks in response to the Israeli incursion in Gaza.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, Israeli troops shot dead a wanted member of Hamas as he tried to flee arrest, the military said.

The military also said it had uncovered a rocket-making operation in Ramallah. Palestinians have been making and firing rockets in the Gaza Strip in recent years, but this was the first time that Israel had found such an operation in the West Bank, the military said.

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