The World Court Tells Israel: Tear Down That Wall

Israel ran up against a brick wall at the Hague. Ruling on the legality of the wall Israel is building in the West Bank, International Court of Justice rejected Israel's security rationale. The wall, said the judges of the UN court, violates international law in a variety of ways. The wall must be dismantled. Compensation must be paid to persons whose property or other rights have been infringed so far by the construction.

The court acknowledged that Israel has valid security concerns, but ruled that Israel must respond to those concerns in ways that respect the law. The wall violates the Palestinians' rights to property, to access to education and health care, to pursue economic activity. More broadly, the wall threatens the exercise by the Palestinians of their right to self-determination.

Israel had tried to argue that human rights treaties do not apply to what it does in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank, which Israel controls. The court said the treaties do apply. That means that Israel is bound by a parade of rights guarantees that cannot be square with the construction of the wall.

The Supreme Court of Israel recently decided that the route of a section of the wall near Jerusalem must be altered. But Israel's Supreme Court took the harm caused by the wall more narrowly. It found that separating farmers from their fields violates Palestinian rights in a way that is unnecessary. The international court finds that the wall does much broader harm to the Palestinians.

The international court minced no words in saying what Israel must do. It must cease construction "forthwith." It must dismantle what it has built "forthwith." It must make reparation for "all damage caused by the construction of the wall."

Beyond Israel, the court's ruling has implications for the United States. The ruling states that Israel violates rights that are of concern not only to the Palestinians, but to all states of the world. Human rights and self-determination of peoples are matters that affect all countries, even those not directly harmed.

A legal consequence of this broad harm the court finds in Israel's actions is that other countries must refrain from helping Israel. They must not "render aid or assistance in maintaining the situation created by such construction." Although the court did not mention any potential violators, the United States is obviously implicated. Only the United States gives monetary aid to Israel.

Israel is spending huge sums to build the wall. Without the aid the US provides, it would not be able to build so extensively. The court's reasoning calls US aid to Israel into question.

President Bush has in the past been critical of the wall. However, in his exchange with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in April, he seemed to agree with Sharon that the wall is a good idea. The court calls on the UN Security Council and General Assembly to take action to stop the wall. It remains to be seen what those bodies will do. The United States, since 1993, has said that a ny action by the UN interferes with the Oslo peace process. The United States has therefore abstained on or vetoed draft resolutions in the Security Council that would have criticized Israel for building settlements. The court's ruling puts pressure on the United States to change that approach.

The other unanswered question is Israel's likely response. With such a resounding ruling condemning it, will Israel keep on building? What Israel does will depend in large part on what the United States does. It is time for President Bush to tell Israel, in the words of a former US president, to "tear down that wall."

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