Israel’s West Bank Wall Assailed by Key Civil Society Groups

On the eve of the World Court’s opening hearing on Israel’s construction of a barrier wall along the West Bank, two of the world’s oldest and most influential non-governmental organizations are calling for the dismantling of those sections that cross the pre-1967 “Green Line” into occupied territory.

On Thursday, Amnesty International said the barrier, which Israel refers to as a “fence,” “is contributing to grave human rights violations” against Palestinian residents living within the West Bank. “Any measure Israel undertakes in the Occupied Territories in the name of security must comply with its obligations under international law,” the London-based group argued.

The Amnesty statement followed closely on the publication by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) of a statement calling on Israel “not to plan, construct or maintain this Barrier within occupied territory.”

“Where it deviates from the ‘Green Line’ into occupied territory, the Barrier deprives thousands of Palestinian residents of adequate access to basic services such as water, health care and education, as well as sources of income such as agriculture and other forms of employment,” the Geneva-based agency said, adding that to the extent the wall deviates into occupied territory, it violates international humanitarian law (IHL).

“The Palestinian communities situated between the ‘Green Line’ and the Barrier are effectively cut off from the Palestinian society to which they belong. The construction of the West Bank Barrier continues to give rise to widespread appropriation of Palestinian property and extensive damage to or destruction of buildings and farmland,” the ICRC said, in what observers noted was a highly unusual public statement.

The two statements were apparently provoked not only by the barrier’s actual construction, but also by the imminence of the World Court hearing, which is scheduled to begin Monday at The Hague (news – web sites) in the Netherlands.

The Court, formally called the International Court of Justice (ICJ), was formally asked to issue an Advisory Opinion on the legality of the barrier’s construction in a resolution overwhelmingly approved by the UN General Assembly in early December.

Israel has refused to recognize the Court’s jurisdiction to hear the case and will not present formal arguments, although its government intends to have spokespeople present at The Hague to press the Israeli viewpoint on the international press and public. Pro-barrier Israeli groups are expected to sponsor the presence of hundreds of protesters, along with the remains of a bus blown up by a suicide bomber. Palestinians are also expected to demonstrate against what they call “the wall.”

Israel contends that the barrier is necessary to protect Israelis – both those living within the pre-1967 borders and the more than 200,000 Israeli settlers who live inside the West Bank – from attacks by Palestinians, particularly suicide bombers. The government argues that the fence must be seen as “a defensive measure.”

But some Israeli settlements are situated deep inside the West Bank, and recent proposals call for the fence to surround them and their access roads in ways that will effectively separate Palestinian towns and villages from each other. Not only will most of the land on which the fence will be built be Palestinian, but the barrier itself threatens to separate thousands of Palestinian farmers from their lands, rural residents from nearby services, such as hospitals, children from their schools, and even families from each other.

Israel insists that it is determined to ease these hardships by providing checkpoints through the wall that will permit people to pass at various times during the day or evening.

Both Amnesty and ICRC declared they are sympathetic to Israel’s desire to protect its citizens from attacks, but that the barrier, to the degree that it encroaches on occupied land, is both disproportionate in its impact on the local population and illegal.

“The security exceptions in international law cannot be invoked to justify measures that benefit unlawful Israeli settlements at the expense of the occupied Palestinian population,” Amnesty said. “The construction of the fence/wall inside the Occupied Territories is such a measure and in its present configuration it violates Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law.”

The ICRC agrees that Israel has a right to take measures to ensure the security of its population, but stress that such measures must conform to the law.

“The problems affecting the Palestinian population in their daily lives clearly demonstrate that it runs counter to Israel’s obligation under international humanitarian law to ensure the humane treatment and well-being of the civilian population living under its occupation,” the ICRC said. “The measures taken by the Israeli authorities linked to the construction of the Barrier in occupied territory go far beyond what is permissible for an occupying power under IHL.”

The ICRC’s statement may be particularly damaging to Israel’s case, because the organization has worked in the occupied territories since 1967.

The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (news – web sites), however, immediately criticized the ICRC for its position and decision to go public with it. “There is a danger that the position presented by the ICRC will be turned into a political tool against Israel’s measures of self-defense,” said Yaakov Levy, Israel’s ambassador to international organizations in Geneva.

“The ICRC announcement was a departure from the good relationship that it has enjoyed with Israel in recent years, working for the common goal of improving the humanitarian situation of Palestinians in the midst of a wave of armed attacks against Israel,” he added, suggesting that it may compromise the organization’s reputation for neutrality.

Many observers believe that the barrier may be less of a security measure than an attempt by the right-wing Likud government to unilaterally impose a permanent border between Israel and a future Palestinian entity, although Sharon has denied that that is his intent. The Bush administration has just dispatched a high-level delegation to Israel to discuss the government’s plans.

(One World)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.