Thousands of Palestinians Protest West Bank Barrier

Published February 21, 2004

| Associated Press

Thousands of Palestinians staged noisy street demonstrations across the West Bank (search) on Saturday to protest a massive Israeli barrier sealing off parts of the territory, marching and shooting guns into the air.

The demonstrations were among the largest public outpourings of anger at the barrier, which Palestinians fear will ruin chances for establishing an independent state because parts of it dip deep into the West Bank.

Israel says it needs the series of fences, trenches, walls and watchtowers to keep suicide bombers and gunmen from reaching its towns.

The demonstrations came ahead of hearings to start Monday at the International Court of Justice (search), in The Hague, Netherlands, to determine if the barrier is legal.

On Friday, an Israeli security official said workers would take down a section of the barrier that has isolated the Palestinian town of Baka al-Sharkia (search) from the rest of the West Bank. The decision was apparently aimed at defusing criticism over the route, which disrupts the lives of thousands of Palestinians.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) dismissed the route adjustment and said all parts of the barrier built on West Bank land must be removed.

"We do not approve of even one millimeter of this wall that falls on our land," Qureia said.

Also Saturday, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man before dawn in a military zone near the fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip (search), the military said. An army spokesman said he did not know if the man was carrying a weapon. Palestinian security officials said the man, Usama Mghairi, 32, was a policeman.

The largest demonstration Saturday was in the city of Nablus, where 2,000 people, including dozens of gunmen in black ski masks, marched through the streets. Besides protesting the barrier, the noisy display -- punctuated by gunshots fired into the air -- was also a memorial for about 2,600 Palestinians killed in more than three years of fighting.

More than 900 Israelis have also been killed in the fighting.

Hundreds of people, including women and children, carried banners with slogans protesting the barrier during similar marches in the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Jenin.

Israeli construction crews will begin removing a six-mile section of the barrier that cuts off Baka al-Sharkia on Sunday, a security official said on condition of anonymity.

Another barrier, to the west of the town, will remain in place. And Israel will open a gate to allow passage to a "sister" town, Baka al-Gharbia which is in Israel, the official said on Friday.

Israel began building the barrier more than a year ago and has finished about a third of its eventual 450 miles. It has come under growing pressure -- including domestic legal challenges -- to reroute the barrier to reduce hardship for the Palestinians.

Future sections would cut deep into the West Bank in places to wrap around Jewish settlements, and would separate thousands more Palestinians from farmland, schools and jobs.

Ahead of the hearings at the world court, Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath (search) leveled rare public criticism of Arab allies, saying some Arab countries are not doing enough to back the Palestinian campaign against the barrier.

Seventeen countries are scheduled to present arguments to the court next week, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Algeria, as well as the Arab League. The United States, the European Union and Israel will not appear before the judges. Earlier, 44 countries presented written arguments.

"I feel so sorry that many of the Arab countries have not even sent a written statement to the court against the wall," Shaath said on Friday. He did not single out any Arab country.

The International Court of Justice is the highest judicial body of the United Nations and took on the case at the request of the U.N. General Assembly. Its ruling on the barrier's legality is nonbinding, but both sides have invested great effort in the case because the outcome is likely to influence international opinion.

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