JERUSALEM – Israel's Supreme Court promised a speedy ruling on a petition to halt construction of Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank (search), a landmark case seen as a dress rehearsal for a world court hearing over the contentious project.
The court heard arguments in the case Monday, a day after the government said it would change the route to minimize hardship for Palestinians and gain Washington's support against the legal challenges.
The rights group behind the petition said the partially built network of walls, razor wire and trenches infringes on human rights and violates international law. The Center for the Defense of the Individual (search) said that if Israel wants a barrier, it should be built on territory it held before seizing the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war.
State attorney Michael Blass told the court the 440-mile barrier is necessary to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers, who have killed hundreds in three years of violence.
"It is not we who unleashed the demon of terror," Blass said.
The planned route cuts deep into the West Bank in several places and encircles Palestinian towns and villages, cutting off tens of thousands of people. Palestinians say it is a land grab aimed at preventing them from creating a state.
Chief Justice Aharon Barak said the three-judge panel would rule "as soon as possible."
Barak didn't say whether the decision would come before the International Court of Justice (search) in the Netherlands takes up the question of the barrier's legality. Those hearings are set to begin Feb. 23 at The Hague.
Any Israeli court decision could affect Israel's case before the world court, which is to issue an advisory ruling at the request of the U.N. General Assembly.
Israel challenges the world court's right to rule on the barrier, arguing that the issue is being manipulated by its opponents for political ends.
"We don't think the Hague court needs to debate this," Blass told the court. "We think the issue should be resolved between the sides."
The barrier plan is one of several unilateral steps being considered by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search). On Monday, senior Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo said the Palestinians are considering a unilateral step of their own -- declaration of an independent state that would include the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.
Several other groups also filed objections about aspects of the barrier project. Human rights lawyer Avigdor Feldman, representing one of the petitioners, said the world court case should be an incentive for the Israeli court to make an exhaustive examination of the facts.
"The Hague hearing is in the background," he told Barak.
Other lawyers said that a full-scale Israeli judicial review, generating responses by expert witnesses and written legal opinions, could provide useful ammunition to Israeli advocates at the Hague, while demonstrating the Israeli court's own competence.
Joining the case on the government side, a pro-barrier group called "Fence for Life" said it would save not only Israelis from attacks; but it would also spare Palestinians the almost automatic Israeli military retaliation.
"If we have the fence as fast as possible, casualties on both sides will cease," group chairman Ilan Tzion told reporters outside the courtroom.
On Sunday, Sharon adviser Zalman Shoval said Israel will change the route the barrier to cause less hardship for the Palestinians and foster U.S. support. Washington agrees with Israel that the international court is not the proper venue for the case but objects to the route of the barrier because of the disruption it causes Palestinians.
Israel wants to "make things as easy as possible for Palestinians who need to get to their fields (and) to have fewer checkpoints," Shoval said.
In another development, Palestinian officials said Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) and Sharon would hold their first meeting on Feb. 21 or 22. Aides to the two premiers have met on and off for weeks to set up the summit, which is seen as a key for restarting stalled peace talks.
Meanwhile, a new poll found that Palestinian support for violence and suicide bombings against Israel has dropped sharply in more than three years of fighting.
Only 35 percent of respondents support continuing the violence, down from 43 percent in November and 73 percent in November 2000. The poll by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion surveyed 500 Palestinian adults and had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
But violence continued Monday, with two Palestinians killed in Gaza and another killed in the West Bank, Palestinians said.
One of the Palestinians killed in Gaza was identified as a member of Hamas, but Israel's army said it had no part in the man's death. The second was a 17-year-old youth, the Palestinians said. The military had no comment.
In the West Bank, a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades was killed in a shootout with Israeli soldiers near the town of Jenin. The military said he was shooting at construction workers near an Israeli settlement, wounding a soldier, and was hit by soldiers' return fire.