World court ruling sought on Israel fence

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Israel came under fresh pressure to dismantle its security fence in the West Bank after the United Nations General Assembly voted in emergency session last night to ask the International Court of Justice to rule on its legality.

The court is not obliged to take on the case. But the vote, called by the Arab states and the Palestinian Authority, and adopted 90 to 8 with 74 abstentions, makes it more likely.

Any opinion against the 90-mile network of barriers, under construction since 2000, would embarrass Israel.

The Palestinian envoy to the UN, Nasser al-Kidwa, denounced the barrier as the "shame of the 21st Century" and linked its removal to Palestinian willingness to negotiate further for peace based on the Middle East road map. He said: "For us, it is either the wall or the road map."

But Israel's ambassador, Dan Gillerman, accused Mr Kidwa of rehearsing a "litany of lies", and said the barrier existed only because of the failure of the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Yasser Arafat, to prevent terrorist attacks on Israel.

He said: "This is the Arafat fence. This is the fence that Arafat built; his terrorism initiated it and made its construction inevitable. If there were no Arafat there would be no need for a fence."

He held up pictures of Israeli children killed or wounded by recent terrorist attacks, and called the resolution a "diversionary tactic", that reflected the UN "at its worst".

However, even as the Israeli government yesterday said giving the case to the court would set a "dangerous precedent", Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he would cooperate if it takes on the issue.

As expected, the United States voted against the resolution, arguing that it failed explicitly to condemn terrorist attacks and the militant groups responsible for them. In the last three months, the US has also vetoed three resolutions in the Security Council critical of Israel.

"If you don't resist efforts to pass these lopsided resolutions, it causes the Palestinians to feel they're let off the hook," said the US Ambassador, John Negroponte, before the vote. "It vindicates their actions, that they must be doing everything right and it's the other guy entirely responsible, when in fact everybody has a responsibility to contribute to a peaceful solution to this conflict."

Britain, in common with other European Union countries, abstained. The British Ambassador, Emyr Jones Parry, said: "We considered it inappropriate without the consent of both parties to ask the court to give an advisory opinion. Moreover, it is unlikely to resolve the problems on the ground."

The Arab states called the emergency meeting after Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, issued a report two weeks ago arguing that the Israeli barriers were doing considerable harm to Palestinians.

Israel, which argues that they represent the only means of keeping terrorists out of its territory, condemned the report as one-sided. In three years, 450 people have been killed by terrorists inside Israel.