Israel boycotts hearings over fence

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The Independent Online

Israel decided yesterday to boycott hearings of the International Court of Justice on the legality of its West Bank fence.

A ministerial committee, headed by Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister, stuck to a document it submitted last month, which argued that the court had no authority to discuss the "terrorism prevention fence" because it concerned the country's basic right of self-defence. The hearings are due to start in The Hague on 23 February.

Sa'eb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said: "The Israelis don't want to hear the court's view, but I believe the world should hear it." The Palestinians have complained that the barrier causes unnecessary hardship to as many as 400,000 civilians.

At the request of Arab states, the United Nations General Assembly referred the issue to the court. The 15 judges will report back to the Assembly, but only the Security Council can order sanctions against Israel. The United States would probably veto any punitive resolution.

Mr Sharon's committee accepted the recommendation of its legal advisers, headed by Daniel Bethlehem, a Cambridge University expert on international law. They maintained that the court had no jurisdiction in what Israel sees as a political, rather than a legal, dispute.

The Prime Minister's spokesman noted that several countries - including Britain and the US - had also challenged the court's authority to judge the case. They too were said to have chosen not to appear for the hearings.

Jewish students will parade placards through The Hague showing the 920 Israelis killed since the Palestinians launched the latest intifada in October 2000. The burnt-out skeleton of a Jerusalem bus, in which a suicide bomber killed 11 passengers last month, will be parked outside the courthouse. Hundreds of Israelis have bought cut-price flights to the Netherlands, offered on condition that they take part in pro-fence demonstrations.

Palestinian farmers will testify how the fence has stopped them getting to their fields. They are also planning a rally with European supporters and an exhibition showing the disruption of Palestinian daily life.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Shin Bet security service said yesterday that it had arrested a six-man Hamas cell, including its leader, Fadal Taha, 30, that was makingrockets in Ramallah.