July 10, 2004.
Essential measure of self-defence, or infringement of property and movement
rights? It was clear from its beginnings in the mid-1990s – as a proposal made
by a dovish member of the Labour cabinet – that a security fence separating
Israel from those determined to murder its citizens would be not one or the
other but both.
To erect a barrier 730 kilometres long, three- to eight-metres high, is impossible
without creating hardship for some Palestinian farmers and villagers.
The Israeli Supreme Court, acting with due process unknown elsewhere
in the Middle East, has already recognized this and ruled that Israel must find an
alternative route for 30 to 40 particularly oppressive kilometres north of Jerusalem.
It is worth remembering that this ruling was in response to complaints brought
by Palestinian villagers themselves. They have the right to challenge
expropriations and to be compensated for lost land.
The system is not much different from the system that prevails in other
democratic countries when a major public project is deemed to supersede the
rights of individual landowners.
None of this deterred the International Court of Justice in the Hague – the main
legal tribunal of the United Nations – from yesterday declaring the fence illegal
and a violation of the rights of Palestinians. The 14-1 decision, which is
non-binding, predictably included a call on the UN to take action to prevent
construction from proceeding.
This is doubtless an invitation for another anti-Israel resolution by the
reflexively anti-Israel General Assembly. It is also more weary evidence that in
disputes before world bodies, Israel is rarely given a fair hearing.
There is precisely one good reason to continue building the fence: It works.
According to the Israeli defence ministry, since the erection of the initial
stretch of the fence, terrorist penetrations into Israel from the northern West
Bank have plunged from 600 per year to zero. Eighty-five Israelis were killed in
one month in 2002, before the fence. This year there was a stretch of four
months without any civilian casualties.
This did not reflect a sudden policy of clemency among Israel’s enemies.
Indeed, terror spokesmen promised “volcanic” revenge for the assassinations of
Hamas founders Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi. The revenge has
One issue on which even fair-minded observers are likely to differ is the route
followed by the fence. It is true that much of it extends beyond the Green Line
of 1967 and into West Bank territories viewed internationally as Palestinian.
The status of settlers is hotly disputed within Israel itself.
But the government can hardly leave these citizens vulnerable to attacks
on the opposite side of the fence. Ideals, again, must contend with reality.
If the court of public opinion rules that the fence is ugly, sad and costly, few
will disagree. No nation wishes to spend billions of dollars on security to protect
its citizens from ruthless, random attacks.
But the larger point, which must never be forgotten, is that no nation
should have to do so. Israel must. That is why it must also ignore the Hague ruling.