Israel comes under internal pressure to move contentious West Bank barrier closer to 1967 boundary

Friday, August 20th 2004, 8:37 am
By: News On 6

JERUSALEM (AP) _ A Supreme Court order and a rare admonition from the attorney general increased pressure on Israel to reassess its West Bank security barrier Friday as a senior government official said the country would have to explain why it won't heed a world court ruling to dismantle the contentious structure.

Attorney General Meni Mazuz on Thursday warned that the International Court of Justice's July ruling at The Hague, Netherlands, urging Israel to tear down the barrier could lead to sanctions against the Jewish state.

Mazuz's warning _ an unusual acknowledgment that the country could be punished because of its policies toward the Palestinians _ coincided with a Supreme Court order giving the government 30 days to produce a statement about how the world court's decision would affect the barrier's construction.

A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel would hold to its decision not to comply with the ruling by the Hague, heeding only the rulings of the Israeli high court.

However, the official said, to head off the possibility of sanctions, ``Israel must be ready from a legal point of view to provide answers why it is not implementing the Hague decision.''

The official's comment reflected growing international pressure on Israel on the barrier issue.

The serpentine complex of concrete walls, razor wire and trenches already has disrupted the lives of thousands of Palestinians, who have been cut off from their lands and prevented from reaching other villages and population centers.

Israel says it is necessary to prevent Palestinian militants from attacking its towns and cities.

A precedent setting Israeli Supreme Court ruling in June has led the Defense Ministry to reroute chunks of the barrier to bring it closer to Israel's 1967 boundary.

The Israelie high court ordered a 20-mile section of the barrier rerouted, saying it violates Palestinian human rights and international law. That section of the planned 425 mile structure was to jut deep into the West Bank, on lands Palestinians want for a future state.

Mazuz's report could force the government to make still more changes.

``We are on solid ground on Jerusalem but we are on more shaky ground in some rural areas,'' said the Israeli official, who asked that his name not be used.

Since Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast War, Israeli leaders have consistently refused demands from the powerful Jewish settlement movement to declare sovereignty over the territory, fearing both international condemnation and the end of a Jewish majority in the country.

But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to move forward with the construction of the barrier along a route that puts significant swaths of West Bank land on the ``Israeli'' side raised a firestorm of criticism worldwide that climaxed with the Hague decision.

In his report, Mazuz said the government should ``as quickly as possible have its decisions regarding the barrier's route ... comply with the principles set down by the Supreme Court.''

Mazuz advised Sharon to have his Cabinet officially adopt the Defense Ministry's new route, saying ``such a decision will send the message that Israel is respecting international law in construction of the separation barrier.''

Under Sharon's plan for ``unilateral disengagement,'' Israel would complete the separation barrier and withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements by the end of 2005.

About one-fourth of the barrier has been built.

Although the world court ruling _ and a U.N. General Assembly resolution backing the decision _ are not legally binding, Mazuz said that ``it is difficult to minimize the negative repercussions of the Hague court's decision on the state of Israel.''

``The decision creates a new legal reality for Israel in the international arena that can be used as an excuse or catalyst to take different actions against Israel ... including sanctions,'' Mazuz wrote.

In other developments Friday, thousands of Palestinian protested throughout the West Bank and Gaza to show solidarity with Palestinian prisoners on a hunger strike since Sunday.

Police went on high alert in Jerusalem, banning Palestinians under the age of 45 from attending Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa mosque, the city's holiest Muslim shrine.

The prisoners are pressing for greater access to phones, more family visits, an end to strip searches and better sanitary conditions.