Hearings on Israeli Security Fence Conclude

Arab and Muslim nations urged the world court Wednesday to deliver a decisive verdict against Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank (search), leading to the barrier's destruction and the prosecution of those who planned it.

Concluding three days of hearings, the 15 judges of the International Court of Justice (searchretired to begin deliberations on the legality of the structure, but it may take months to reach a decision.

Although the court's opinion is not binding, Arab advocates hope the United Nation's highest judicial body will issue recommendations that could be acted upon by the Security Council (search). While any such action could be vetoed by the United States, even a failed U.N. resolution against the barrier would represent a public relations victory.

The final testimony in the hearings — and among the most strident — came from the 22-member Arab League (searchand the Organization of the Islamic Conference (search), a grouping of 57 Muslim nations.

Israel, which says the barrier is meant to stop homicide bombers, stayed away from the courtroom, claiming the proceedings initiated by the U.N. General Assembly in December were loaded against it.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon this week dismissed The Hague process as "hypocrisy" and pledged to complete the barrier, now one-fourth finished, regardless of the judges' ruling.

The United States and the European Union also avoided the oral hearings after submitting written arguments that the issue is political and should be left for negotiations.

"The question asked of the court was clearly a one-sided question," said Israeli Foreign Ministry legal adviser Daniel Taub, who watched from the sidelines.

"In fact, the court was asked half a question. It was asked to put people trying to defend themselves from terrorism on trial, but not the terrorists themselves," he said.

Hearings began Monday, one day after a homicide bomber killed 11 people on a Jerusalem bus — an act Israel called a more compelling argument for the barrier than any it could make in The Hague.

Chief Palestinian delegate Nasser Al-Kidwa said he was satisfied with the hearings and that the court's conclusions, though focused on the barrier, should have wider implications.

"For the court to be able to express itself on the wall, it has to deal with the underlying situation," he told reporters. "It has to say that this is an occupied territory, it has to say that certain rules and provisions of international law are applicable."

A repeated target of the presentations was Israel's West Bank settlements, now housing some 240,000 Israelis among 2 million Palestinians.

The barrier was intended to protect not just Israel, but settlements, which themselves are illegal, argued Michael Bothe, head of the legal team for the Arab League.

Bothe told the tribunal it should issue a firm ruling that the barrier must be destroyed, that confiscated lands be returned, and that compensation be paid.

Describing the structure as a "grave breach" of international law governing occupied lands, he suggested that those responsible be brought to justice.

"All state parties are thus obliged to prosecute offenders which happen to find themselves within their power or to extradite them to a state willing to prosecute them."

That appeared unlikely. Belgium's high court threw out a case last year against Sharon on charges related to the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees by a Lebanese Christian militia in camps in Lebanon. At the time, Sharon was Israel's defense minister.

In the absence of advocates for the barrier, judges heard an unchallenged litany of the hardships imposed by the concrete and barbed wire structure that, in some places, encircles Palestinian towns and isolates their residents.

"The wall does not stand between terrorists and potential victims. It stands between the farmer and his land, between the employee and his employer, between the merchant and client, between child and school ... between patient and doctor, between the faithful and his or her holy places," Bothe said.

The Palestinians have acknowledged Israel's right to build defensive walls, as long as they are on Israeli land and not confiscated property. Israel has said it could move the wall once there was a peace agreement.