THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Palestinians presented an impassioned case to the world court Monday against the Israeli separation barrier in the West Bank, while Israel appealed to world opinion to ignore the proceedings it called inherently unfair.
The International Court of Justice (search) began three days of oral hearings on the legality of the barrier slicing through Palestinian territory, bringing Israel's occupation policies before an international tribunal for the first time. But the United States and Europe joined Israel in staying away.
The opening session came a day after a Palestinian bomber killed eight Israelis and wounded dozens on a Jerusalem bus. The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade (search), a group with ties to Yasser Arafat's Fatah (search) movement, claimed responsibility.
Israel said the attack showed the need for the barrier, designed to impede terrorism. But the Palestinians argued the structure only fuels the resentment that inspires bombers.
The Bush administration insisted again Monday that the court should not be involved in the dispute over the fence. "This is a political issue and it should be resolved through dialogue and negotiation between the parties," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Outside the baroque Peace Palace at the Hague, Israelis bearing photographs of relatives who died in attacks clustered around the shell of a Jerusalem bus destroyed three weeks ago by a bomber who killed 11 people.
Later, more than 1,000 pro-Palestinian demonstrators marched from the Dutch parliament to the seat of the court, chanting and carrying photographs of Palestinian children killed by Israeli soldiers.
Thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip also marched in protest against Israel's separation barrier, and in some locations were pushed back by Israeli soldiers firing tear gas.
The General Assembly asked the United Nations' highest judicial body last December to give a nonbinding advisory opinion on the legality of the network of walls, razor-wire fences and electronic monitors, now one-third completed.
Though the court cannot demand action, the Palestinians hoped for a clear-cut judgment that would build pressure on Israel to dismantle the barrier, which is disrupting the lives of hundreds of thousands of West Bank residents.
Israel has begun making minor changes in the route of the barrier to reduce its impact on Palestinians and promised further changes. Israel has made it clear, however, it would not be swayed from action it deems necessary to protect its citizens.
The Palestinians see the situation differently.
"This wall is not about security. It is about entrenching the occupation and the de facto annexation of large areas of the Palestinian land," the chief Palestinian delegate, Nasser Al-Kidwa, told the tribunal.
As the arguments unfolded in the oak-paneled Grand Hall of Justice of the 90-year-old Peace Palace, it became apparent that the Palestinians hoped to put Israel's 37-year occupation — not just its security measures — on trial.
The construction of the barrier "confirms the attitude of the occupying power. They want to annex territories, to partition, divide the territory and make it difficult for the people to live there," Amr Moussa, head of the Arab League (search), told reporters.
In its written submission, Israel said the General Assembly referral to the court is "absolutely silent" on the issue of violence. "It is a travesty and reflects a great prejudice and imbalance within the requesting organ."
Like Israel, the United States argued in a written brief that the court could inadvertently undermine the U.S.-backed peace process, known as the "road map," and urged the 15 judges to refrain from taking a stand.
"It would be extremely damaging to future negotiations if the court were to set forth, even in a nonbinding advisory basis, legal conclusions" about a final settlement, the U.S. brief said.
U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat, said the court's intervention could set a dangerous precedent. "This court may see fit to juxtapose itself into military confrontations all over the world," he told The Associated Press.
Speaking for the Palestinians, eminent Arab and international advocates gave a three-hour presentation to the 15 judges — garbed in formal black robes and seated behind a long raised table — of the legal and human arguments against the barrier.
An additional 14 countries and organizations were to follow, all of them sympathetic to the Palestinian argument.
Vaughan Lowe, an Oxford law professor, said Israel was violating international law by seizing land, destroying property, and changing the status of the occupied territories.
Israel "cannot cast off all legal and moral constraints simply by calling it security," said the British jurist.
Stephanie Koury, a Palestinian delegate, presented graphs and photos showing how the barrier has separated families and made it difficult for Palestinians to lead normal lives.
While the court listened to legalistic contentions inside, human tragedies and hardships were the subject of the demonstrations outside.
"My house is on one side of the wall, my family and husband are on the other," said elementary school teacher Terry Boullata from the Arab side of Jerusalem.
Since the barrier was constructed near her family's home in Jerusalem, she has been cut off from the school she owns in a nearby West Bank neighborhood.
"Instead of taking two minutes, it takes 30 minutes and I have to go through a checkpoint," she said while marching. Her Palestinian husband now breaks the law when he stays the night with his wife in the Israeli capital because he has a 12-hour daytime work permit, she said.