Palestinians risk squandering a moral victory

The ICJ ruling marks the moment when 37 years of flouting the law caught up with Israel
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The Independent Online

By the standards of previous attacks, the death toll from the bomb which killed a 19-year-old Israeli woman soldier and injured 20 other people in Tel Aviv yesterday, was mercifully low. Nevertheless the bomb, swiftly claimed by Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, the faction linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah, was presumably intended to kill many more people than it did. From the political point of view of the Palestinians, the timing could hardly have been less adept. It came on the day that the leadership, elated at the spectacular vindication by the International Court of Justice of almost everything they have been saying about the Israeli-built separation barrier, was to begin its diplomatic struggle with Israel to maximise support in the United Nations General Assembly.

By the standards of previous attacks, the death toll from the bomb which killed a 19-year-old Israeli woman soldier and injured 20 other people in Tel Aviv yesterday, was mercifully low. Nevertheless the bomb, swiftly claimed by Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, the faction linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah, was presumably intended to kill many more people than it did. From the political point of view of the Palestinians, the timing could hardly have been less adept. It came on the day that the leadership, elated at the spectacular vindication by the International Court of Justice of almost everything they have been saying about the Israeli-built separation barrier, was to begin its diplomatic struggle with Israel to maximise support in the United Nations General Assembly.

Instead the bombing played politically into the hands of Ariel Sharon's government, which immediately seized on it to dramatise its contention that the judges had ignored the very threat of murderous attacks inside Israel by Palestinian militants, which the barrier is supposed to contain. It came, too, at a time when for all the unbridled critiques here on its perceived one-sidedness, the judgment had begun to provoke some real heart searching, even among some right-leaning commentators, about the fast-growing and illegal privations visited on Palestinians by the barrier and its route. In Israel, the bombing is bound, in part, to swing the immediate spotlight back to where the Prime Minister and his colleagues have always thought it should be focused: on security and the use of the barrier to prevent attacks of this kind. And, perhaps, not just in Israel. It could even help the government's intensive lobbying of European capitals against further UN ratification of a judgment which formally they all, including Britain, agree with.

Of course, the bombing may well have been a freelance operation planned and executed locally. But the leadership can't escape some responsibility for the tactic, for which Yasser Arafat's protracted ambiguity on the issue of attacks inside Israel continues to provide cover. The recent rocket attacks on Sderot apart, this is the first bombing of civilians in Israel since March. But there is no sign, for example, that the leadership, however fragmented and floundering, has been prepared to sanction, let alone seek to enforce, the proposal by more than 60 Palestinians intellectuals, politicians and civic leaders back in March in effect to forswear attacks on the Israeli side of the 1949-67 Green Line, and in effect rethink the nature of the intifada.

Palestinians often complain that civilian deaths in the occupied territories receive less attention than those of Israelis. And justly so. Scarcely a week goes by without a seemingly indefensible cases of civilians being killed by the army during an operation. The fatal shooting at Qalandia of a wheelchair-bound paraplegic man and the gunning down in Nablus of a university professor and his son as they tried to leave their home under army orders are two of the more flagrant cases that come to mind. But they are far from isolated. The sad truth is that attacks like yesterday's make it even less likely that international opinion will start to focus on that imbalance.

For in international diplomatic terms, the moral high ground is precisely where the Palestinians should now be located. You don't have to believe that the ICJ ruling is flawless to recognise that it marks the moment at which 37 years of brazen dismissal of the obligations of international law have caught up with Israel.

The barrier, certainly as routed at present, is already making the chronic, day-to-day misery of the occupation dramatically worse for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

Israel's insistence that the route, which cuts deep into Palestinian territory, is reversible takes no account of the businesses closed, the lost jobs, the seized farmland, the suddenly inaccessible schools or the large-scale movements of population from their homes, which are already happening. Indeed even by the lights of Israel's stated goals, it is hard to believe that the decision to route it through Palestinian territory - often but not always to protect settlements also roundly declared illegal in the Hague - will not offset the security gains of the barrier because of the risk that the rage it engenders creates in its turn more militancy.

Palestinian strategists have made some smart decisions. It makes sense for them to wait until after a possible change of presidency to secure a vote in the UN Security Council to give the court decision any teeth. There are also significant, if as yet indeterminate, stirrings against corruption, and for reform, democratisation and a change of strategy in the internal Fatah elections which Arafat has been trying unsuccessfully to block in Gaza.

For the Palestinians, having won an important moral victory by diplomatic means at the Hague, it may increasingly be up to the younger generation of their politicians to capitalise upon it. The momentousness of the Hague judgment should not be exaggerated; it does not, as Ariel Sharon made brutally clear yesterday, change the facts on the ground. But it shouldn't be underestimated either. Even Israeli public opinion, which has been driven by nearly four years of the intifada markedly to the right, may not in the end be immune to arguments from international law, equity and civilised values. But above all it should not be squandered in a way that justifies Abba Eban's cruel gibe about the Palestinians never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

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