There has been much jubilation and praise among Palestinians, their supporters and human rights groups about the International Court of Justice’s decision on July 9 regarding Israel’s West Bank barrier. But why? The decision is no surprise, and it will not have any real impact on Israel’s actions.
Don’t get me wrong – I too welcomed the ICJ’s ruling that Israel’s barrier violates international law, that it must be dismantled, that Israel should compensate those harmed by the barrier, that all states should ensure Israel’s compliance with international law, and that the UN should consider what further action to take.
I was also heartened by the near unanimity of the ruling – 14 to 1 – the only serial dissenter being, of course, US Judge Thomas Buergenthal.
But anyone with common sense knew prior to the ruling that the barrier is illegal because it is built on occupied Palestinian land. No legal expertise needed and no prizes warranted. In any case, legal experts have long stated what the ICJ has just concluded, including the UN’s John Dugard, who said in March 2003 that the barrier represented "de facto annexation" of Palestinian territory.
Israel justified the barrier as a security measure, but could provide no reasonable response to the fact that it could provide better security and less hardship and animosity if built on Israel’s internationally recognised borders rather than on Palestinian land. Sadly, this has not stopped the proliferation in the media of the terms "security fence" and "security barrier", nor has it stopped many journalists equating Israel’s hollow claim with the very real accusation that the barrier is a calculated land grab, all in the name of "objectivity".
The limited impact of the ICJ’s decision is also no surprise. It is without doubt a moral victory for the Palestinians, but little else.
From the outset Israel, the US and the UK dismissed the authority of the court and argued, bizarrely, that its involvement would interfere with the quest for peace. Israel held it in such contempt that it did not even present a defence at the hearings.
As such, its reaction to the ruling was as predictable as it was misguided. One by one Israeli officials, spokesmen and ministers lined up to condemn the ICJ and reject its ruling. So too did the White House and George Bush’s rival John Kerry, if one can call him that over the Arab-Israeli conflict.
"I believe that after all the rancour dies, this resolution will find its place in the garbage can of history," said Raanan Gissin, a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Unfortunately, he may well be right.
The issue could be dealt with in the UN General Assembly, which would no doubt issue a resolution demanding Israeli compliance, but this would be non-binding.
Alternatively, for a binding resolution, the issue could be taken to the Security Council, but with permanent members the US and UK opposed to the court, as well as America’s track record of vetoing anything critical of Israel, a resolution there would have no chance of success.
That is not to say a resolution should not be presented at the Security Council. A US veto would make it that much harder for Israel’s supporters, many in the media, and naive or ignorant members of the public to claim that American bias towards Israel is merely "perceived". It will also strengthen the conviction of those already aware that the US is anything but an honest broker in the "peace process", and show the world yet again that Israel is in wanton violation of international law.
Having said that, what real difference will this make on the ground? Israel will continue to build the barrier on Palestinian land with impunity, probably until its completion, and Palestinians will continue to suffer. Those with the will to stop or penalise Israel do not have the power, and those with the power do not have the will.
Thus Israel will get away with it again, as it has with its military occupation, dispossession and colonisation of Arab land for decades. The Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, so many binding Security Council resolutions passed and vetoed, all consigned to the "garbage can of history". I fear that in time, we may come to see the ICJ’s ruling as no different, and we all know who to blame for that.