Separating Israel from Palestinian suicide bombers? The Separation Wall on the outskirts of Jerusalem: separating the occupied Palestinians of Abu Dis village (upper half of picture) from, well, the occupied Palestinians of Abu Dis village (lower). (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)
This afternoon, the International Court of Justice (I.C.J.) at the Hague will publish its Advisory Opinion on Israel's West Bank Wall. The court will undoubtedly rule in favor of the Palestinians, condemning those parts of the barrier that effectively annex Palestinian land, and calling for its dismantling in the Occupied Territories. (It will not of course comment on the small sections of the barrier that actually follow the Green Line: Israel may legally build whatever security structures it wants to defend itself on its own territory, it just can't build them on stolen land to secure an illegal occupation of that land). The Palestinian case is so powerful in international law that its ruling may even be unanimous. (The only sadly predictable exception might be the U.S. judge on the presiding panel - let's face it, if U.S. jurists can advise the Bush Administration that ramming glo-sticks up Iraqi asses doesn't contravene the Geneva Conventions on the rights of P.O.W.s, then we shouldn't perhaps be surprised if they turn a blind eye to blatant contraventions of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of Occupied Peoples). With or without the U.S., the judgement will undoubtedly be overwhelmingly in favor of Palestine. I blogged in an earlier post - Liberty and Justice for Some - about the fact that the Israeli government was unwilling to present its case before the I.C.J., simply because it knew it had no case for the Wall as it is being built.
Israel will of course declare that it has no intention of obeying this ruling, and will shout Security! Security! Security!, hoping that if it shouts loud enough no-one will point out that a wall built for Israel's security would actually have been built between Israeli and Palestinian land, not between Palestinians and their fields, schools, jobs, medical service, and family members. The U.S. too will ignore the ruling, and will effectively shield Israel at the U.N. from the usual consequences of such a damning judgement. (The usual consequences being international sanctions, as the U.N. Security Council imposed in 1971 after the I.C.J. ruled, in a similar case to today's, against apartheid South Africa's illegal occupation of South-West Africa - now Namibia). So this ruling isn't going to bring an immediate change: the Wall isn't going to come tumbling down (yet), and the international community is not going to finally find its voice and present a united and effective front against the Occupation (yet).
But today's ruling matters nonetheless. For all that it claims not to care, Israel is passionately concerned about world opinion, and expends huge resources in manufacturing favorable international coverage, especially in the U.S. Ever since the Wall was referred to the Hague, Israeli Justice Minister Tommy Lapid has been having kittens over the international repercussions of defeat at the I.C.J. In a leaked speech to the Israeli cabinet, he warned in January 2004 that unless the route of the Wall is changed to follow the pre-1967 border, the I.C.J. court hearing will be the beginning of a process that will turn Israel into an apartheid-era South Africa [which] will be boycotted in every international forum. And for the past week Israeli officials have been secretly seeking reassurances from the U.S. that it will use its veto to prevent any effective sanctions being imposed at the U.N. to force compliance with the law. A nation that doesn't care about international opinion doesn't lobby this hard to shield itself from the will of the international community.
Furthermore, international new agencies have until now been falling over themselves trying to balance both side's claims when reporting the on Wall, coming up with convoluted descriptions like "Israeli authorities say the barrier, made up of fences, razor wire and stark concrete walls, is needed to keep Palestinian militants and suicide bombers out, while Palestinians, whose lives are disrupted by the barrier, claim it's a land grab". Now that an impartial legal body has given an authorative ruling on what the barrier really is, they no longer have to do that. The Wall can be fairly described now as simply Israel's illegal West Bank Barrier, and every mention of that in international coverage will be a reminder to world opinion of the occupation and land theft that it represents.
The I.C.J. ruling is also important because of the pressure it puts on Israel's unquestioning defenders. It is today more of an embarassment than ever to be an apologist for Likud policies that a respected international legal forum is about to declare illegal. Of course this doesn't mean that the U.S. is suddenly going to stop covering for Israel at the U.N. But every American veto that frustrates the otherwise unanimous opinion of the U.N.S.C. on the Israel-Palestine issue costs the U.S. diplomatic goodwill, and the cost will go up when this judgement is announced. The cost will go up for Israel, which will be expected to be more visibly cooperative with the U.S. on (cosmetic) issues like outposts, to recompense the U.S. for the increased flak it is taking on Israel's behalf. And the cost will go up for the U.S., at a time when its need for international support (e.g. in Iraq) is greater than ever and its diplomatic standing lower than ever. Need support from France, Germany, Russia, China, Pakistan, Turkey and a hundred other nations on Iraq, North Korea, Syria and Iran? Of course Mr Bush... now what are you going to give us on Israel? That's how it works: every veto costs.
So, from a U.S. perspective, rulings like the I.C.J.'s are helping to transform Israel from a strategic asset that strengthens American interests in the Middle East into a strategic burden that tars our name in the region by associating us with illegal, expansionist, and racist policies that are anathema to our own professed national values and fuel the terror we are supposedly at war with. And from an Israeli perspective, the harsh reality is that when you have mortgaged your future on cultivating just one friend in the world, it's really not in your interests to become a perennial millstone round the neck of that friend.
Thirdly, the I.C.J. ruling is important as an expression of solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who are suffering the effects of the illegal Wall, and with the many thousands of Palestinians (and Israelis) who have been involved in unarmed protest against it over the last few months. They don't get much coverage in the U.S., where Palestinians are generally not news unless one of them has exploded a bomb, but demonstrations against the Wall - often in the face of beatings, tear gas and on five occasions lethal live fire - have become a daily feature in the Palestinian villages around Jerusalem...
such as A-Ram and Biddu...
International solidarity with the Palestinians might not seem to count for much if the two countries it excludes are the world's major power and the Middle East's major power, but it matters. Less than 20 years ago, apartheid South Africa had few friends in the world, but those it had were powerful. I still remember the confidence with which President Reagan and Mrs Thatcher thought they could fend off international pressure against their friends in the National Party. Now, ten years after the fall of apartheid, having a few powerful allies against world opinion doesn't look like such a sure thing.
Finally, this ruling matters because it raises awareness of the reality of the Occupation in those parts of the world where our news coverage is generally Israel-centric. (Is that a word?). Most of us get our news from TV reports that focus on terror as something that happens in a vacuum free of historical context: free of Nakba, and Occupation, and martial law and expropriation and daily humiliation and death at the hands of the IDF. Our coverage is dominated by news of Israeli deaths, as if the deliberate killing of civilians "like us", in restaurants and shopping malls like the ones were frequent, matters more than the far more frequent deliberate killing of civilians not quite like us in squalid slums and refugee camps. When even the vaunted coverage of the BBC leaves its viewers utterly ignorant of the basic facts of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and more likely to believe that it is the Palestinians who are illegally settling on occupied Israeli territory than vice versa, a ruling such as this, which demands some reporting of causes of the conflict and not just its symptoms, can only help.
So for all those reasons, the ruling that the I.C.J. will make today is important. It won't change anything immediately, and every change it does evoke will come grudgingly with foot-dragging and reluctance. But one day when the wall is dismantled, as it will be, we will nevertheless look back and recognise today as a turning point for all of those - Palestinians and Israelis alike - who understand that there is no future for any of us in treating the Arab-Israeli conflict as a zero-sum game.
In the meantime, a small selection of thought-provoking articles from Israelis (and there are many of them) who recognise the Separation Wall for the illegal landgrab that it is, and welcome international intervention to halt what Israelis themselves have failed to stop:
1. Down and out in The Hague
Yoel Marcus contrasts Israel's willingness to make political capital from its terror victims in demonstrations outside the I.C.J., with its reluctance to defend its behavior inside the court. He comes away with the uneasy feeling that Israel wants the world's pity as a victim of terror, while evading discussion of the injustice that gives rise to the terror in the first place:
At their demonstrations, the Palestinians could pull out photographs of more than 3,000 victims. As for playing on the emotions, they could easily flaunt their suffering. They could dwell on their destroyed homes and the torment they endure at army checkpoints. But instead of harping on their misfortunes, they have focused on Israel's occupation policies and the security fence. They have appealed to the world's sense of justice, while we seek the world's pity.
2. Cry, our beloved country
Gideon Levy welcomes the consternation that the I.C.J. referral is causing for those Israelis who have determinedly ignored the progressive imprisonment of their Palestinian neighbors behind the Wall. He hopes that the international hearing might begin the kind of change that I.C.J. intervention began for South Africa:
The hope that international institutions will rescue Israel from its evil doing is very problematic. But when the institutions of law and justice of the state fail, there is no recourse but to turn to the international one. Just like it would have been better had the whites in South Africa understood themselves that their regime was based on evil, it would have been better if those in power in Israel understood finally that our occupation regime is based on terrible evil that should have ended a long time ago.
When this does not happen, when 37 years go by and the occupation only becomes more brutal, when the Israeli consciousness is not being "seared" and does not internalize the enormity of the wickedness, there is no choice but to turn to the world for help.
3. What really influences the High Court
Amira Hass considers the reasons why the Israeli High Court spoke out last week against the Wall's route in the Jerusalem area, and comes to the hopeful conclusion that the small and isolated protests by Palestinians and Israelis are finally causing a rippling effect that is undermining the Israeli public's previous apathy on the route of the barrier and the devastation it causes:
Every demonstration, every protest, every organized tour along the fence including the tours organized by the Peres Center or the supporters of the Geneva initiative, every appearance by the women of MachsomWatch [Checkpoint Watch] at a locked gate in the separation fence created a noisy focus in Israeli society. It was noise in the silence of the uniform consensus. No matter how marginal, how distant, how remote, every noisy focus creates small ripples of public attention, and the ripples expand and broaden...
Joint Israeli-Palestinian protests and joint Jewish-Arab actions create in Israel particularly loud "noise." Every anarchist risking being shot by an Israeli soldier has parents and cousins; every activist at MachsomWatch has relatives and colleagues at work; every architect from Bamakom, the non-profit organization that provided expert counsel to the petitioners regarding the route of the fence, has a partner and contractors with whom he or she works. Thus broadens the circle of Israeli cognizance of the impossible reality created by the separation barrier.
4. Yoel Esteron doesn't just want the West Bank barrier moved to a legal route on the Green Line, he wants it removed altogether. On whatever route it is built, the Wall is a tool for managing the terror that arises from the continuing occupation of the Palestinian territories, when the truth is that the only way Israelis will be free from that terror is by making peace.
Life without a fence was terrible, but at least it created a sense of urgency; that we have to do something to stop the killing; to solve the conflict; to make peace. The fence creates an illusion that we can "manage" the conflict instead of resolving it, another dubious invention of recent years.
...Anyone who wants to live without terror, to live in peace, has to oppose the fence. Not when peace, or the messiah, comes. Now.
Anyone who doesn't oppose the fence is in effect accepting Sharon's fence. The result will be more and more terror that circumvents the fence; the longer the occupation continues, the more horrible the terror. The fence will not stop it for long, it will only make it more sophisticated and more terrible. Here is an urgent proposal to the agenda for Israelis from the center and leftward: Let's dismantle the fence.