Lacking Penalties, World Court Decision Will Have Little Effect on Israel

A potential World Court ruling against Israel for building a controversial "security barrier" in the occupied territories would remain a "moral" victory unless the Jewish state were penalized, say U.S. observers.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague will conclude its three-day hearing Wednesday and later provide an advisory opinion" to the U.N. General Assembly on the legality of the disputed wall that Israel is building over the strong objections of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

"Israel would not likely abide by a World Court decision against the wall unless there were some consequences," says Stephen Zunes, associate professor of politics and chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco.

"This would require that the United States be willing to withhold some of its military and economic aid to the Israeli government, or to refrain from vetoing a UN Security Council resolution imposing some sort of sanctions against Israel for its non-compliance – neither of which are very likely," Zunes told IPS.

But still, an adverse ruling against the wall would further isolate Israel in world public opinion, encourage those supporting the legal rights of people living under occupation, and remind the Palestinians that they are not alone, said Zunes, author of US Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism.

The UN General Assembly requested the advisory opinion in late December by a vote of 90 to four, despite strong opposition from Israel and the United States.

The Israeli government has said the ICJ has no authority to pronounce judgement on the dispute, has refused to participate in the sessions, and threatened to defy the world’s highest judicial tribunal.

Asked if a possible ICJ ruling against Israel would be an exercise in futility, Catherine Cook of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) told IPS, "the strategy of taking the case to the ICJ is the same motivating efforts to pass UN resolutions supporting Palestinian rights."

Even if a positive ruling is achieved, she said, few believe it will result in massive concrete changes on the ground, given the existing geo-political reality.

"But this is not an exercise in futility. A ruling supporting the Palestinian position from an internationally respected legal body like the ICJ can be useful in raising awareness among the international public of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians, and can make other states’ support for Israel increasingly embarrassing given its flagrant violation of international law," Cook added.

The potential impact of a favorable ICJ ruling can be measured by the great lengths Israel has gone to undermine the court’s authority to rule on the issue, she said.

Last month the ICJ rejected, by a vote of 14 to one, Israel’s request to disqualify Egyptian judge Nabil Elaraby from sitting on the tribunal. The dissenting vote was cast by a judge who is a US national.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has publicly reprimanded Jordan for its "active involvement" in the ICJ hearings. In reply, Jordan said it feared an influx of Palestinians if the wall, which would isolate some Palestinian towns and annex land to Israel, was completed.

And last month, the Israeli government asked Washington to delay publishing its State Department’s annual report on human rights worldwide – scheduled for release Wednesday – because possible Israeli abuses in the report could be cited in the ICJ hearings.

Since its establishment in 1946, the ICJ has only issued 24 advisory opinions. The 1971 decision that South Africa’s presence in Namibia was illegal played a key role in swaying public opinion and influenced government policy. Subsequently, Cook said, international sanctions were imposed against apartheid in South Africa.

"Supporters of Palestinian rights hope for similar results from the advisory opinion on the wall – that it will translate into concrete pressure to not only stop and reverse construction, but also result in pressure on Israel to end its occupation."

"This is precisely what Israel fears may happen as a result of the ICJ’s involvement," she added.

Nasser al-Kidwa, head of the Palestinian Observer Mission to the United Nations, describes the fence as "the apartheid wall," and says it will create "a walled-in Palestinian population in two or three enclaves or ghettoes."

In his address before the 15 judges of the ICJ on Monday, al-Kidwa said, "the wall is not about security. It is about entrenching the occupation and the de facto annexation of large areas of Palestinian land."

If completed, he warned, the barrier will leave the Palestinian people with only one-half of the West Bank within isolated, non-contiguous, walled enclaves.

He also argued that the 708-km-long barrier, along with ditches and watchtowers, would "render a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict practically impossible."

In Monday’s New York Times, political activist Noam Chomsky said that at most, the Hague hearings will end in an advisory ruling that the wall is illegal.

"It will change nothing. Any real chance for a political settlement – and for decent lives for the people of the region – depends on the United States," said Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Chomsky also argued that it is misleading to describe the repressive policies in the occupied territories as "Israeli policies."

"They are American-Israeli policies – made possible by unremitting United States military, economic and diplomatic support of Israel," he said.

In his 2005 budget request announced earlier this month, US President George W. Bush again put Israel at the top of nations receiving foreign aid. Most of the proposed three billion dollars is for military credits.

Despite its limitations, Zunes said, the ICJ’s consideration of the issue and likely ruling against Israel will highlight that nation’s ongoing violation of international legal norms in the occupied territories.

"The World Court, even when it has been unable to enforce its decisions, has provided important moral weight for defenders of international law," he added.

Cook said there is reason to believe that more behind-the-scenes pressure will be applied on Israel, though such pressure now is likely to focus on the route of the wall and not its existence.

In recent weeks, she said, Israel has indicated it will change the path of the wall in certain areas, a decision that is undoubtedly the result of international and domestic pressure on the Sharon government, which remains divided.

Despite Sharon’s decision to ignore the ICJ, his Justice Minister Yosef Lapid has said Israel would have gained more by attending the session than boycotting it. "If you do not put up an argument, you will not have publicity for your views," he said last week.

Author: Thalif Deen

Thalif Deen writes for Inter Press Service.