Sharon defies UN with pledge to keep building barrier after bus-stop bombing

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The Independent Online

Palestinian leaders denounced the bombing yesterday of a crowded bus stop in Tel Aviv, which killed a woman soldier and wounded more than 20 other Israelis. They said it played into Israel's hands, two days after the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that the West Bank fence was illegal and should be torn down.

Palestinian leaders denounced the bombing yesterday of a crowded bus stop in Tel Aviv, which killed a woman soldier and wounded more than 20 other Israelis. They said it played into Israel's hands, two days after the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that the West Bank fence was illegal and should be torn down.

The explosion - the first inside Israel since March and the first in its biggest city since two British Muslim suicide bombers struck a beachfront bar 15 months ago - reinforced Ariel Sharon's determination to complete the barrier, which Israel insists is reducing attacks.

After consulting senior ministers and law officers, the Prime Minister directed that construction continue in accordance with the guidelines issued last month by the Israeli Supreme Court, which said that the government must balance Israel's security against Palestinian human rights.

Mr Sharon said at a cabinet meeting two hours after the blast: "This morning's act of murder is the first to have occurred under the auspices of the opinion of the International Court of Justice. On Friday, the sacred right of the war on terrorism received a slap in the face. I want to make it clear: the state of Israel completely rejects the ICJ's opinion."

Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian Labour Minister, told The Independent: "The Palestinian Authority condemns the Tel-Aviv attack. It is not good for the Palestinian cause. There are groups or cells doing things that the vast majority of the Palestinian people consider are doing harm to our cause."

The Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades claimed responsibility for the bombing, which took place at 7am, when Israelis were starting to go back to work after the sabbath break. The bomb, concealed in bushes behind the stop, was detonated by remote control. Witnesses reported seeing a pregnant woman among the wounded receiving treatment. The militants said they were avenging the Israeli army's recent killing of one of their commanders in Nablus. "This says that we can reach every place, even when there is a fence," a spokesman boasted.

In his first public comment since the world court delivered its ruling, Mr Sharon dismissed it as a one-sided opinion based on political considerations. "What the judges refused to see," he argued, "the Palestinians quickly showed them this morning - murder and the wounding of innocent civilians. It is not for nothing that the Palestinians are struggling against the fence. They know full well that the completion of the fence will make it very difficult for them to continue perpetrating acts of murder."

Setting a theme for Israel's diplomatic counter-offensive as the Palestinians prepare to take the ICJ ruling to the United Nations this week, Mr Sharon said: "The opinion sends a deadly message that encourages terror and prevents countries from protecting themselves against it. Today, all who fear the spread of terror must stand alongside Israel in demanding that this immoral and dangerous opinion pass from the world."

The Palestinians disputed Israel's contention that yesterday's attack proved the necessity for the barrier. "The debate," said Mr Khatib, "is not over whether they need a wall. That's up to them. But let them put it on their land, not ours."

The United States has already rejected the ICJ ruling, which is not binding, and has hinted that it will veto any UN Security Council resolution calling for sanctions. Israel's sights are now set on the European Union, most of whose 25 member states objected to the original request from the UN general assembly for an advisory opinion from the international court.

Israel is on a collision course with Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, who said in Bangkok yesterday that Israel had to respect the interests of the Palestinians. "I think the decision of the court is clear," he said. "Whilst we all accept the government of Israel has a responsibility, and indeed the duty, to protect its citizens, any action it takes has to be in conformity with international law."

The Israelis said they were reconsidering the fence's 450-mile route in keeping with the supreme court criteria. The Defence Ministry said that 97.5 miles had been completed and construction was under way on a further 12 miles, but the rest was under review.

Most Israeli commentators condemned what they called the "hypocrisy" of judges in The Hague, but they blamed Mr Sharon for playing politics by snaking the barrier deep into occupied territory to placate the settlers instead of following the pre-1967 war border. Nahum Barnea wrote in the daily Yediot Aharonot: "Its route should have stuck to the Green Line, without digressions and without any smart aleck tricks."

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