Swiss take sides over Israeli barrier

The wall cuts into land occupied by Israel since the 1967 war Keystone

Pro-Palestinian movements in Switzerland have called a protest against Israel's controversial security barrier in the West Bank.

This content was published on February 23, 2004 - 16:38

The wall – whose legality is being examined by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – has also been criticised by Switzerland and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Switzerland, along with 44 other countries, has called on The Hague court to determine whether the 600-kilometre barrier contravenes international law and breaches the rights of civilians in the Palestinian territories.

The Israeli government says the West Bank Barrier - a network of metal fences and concrete walls currently under construction - is designed to keep suicide bombers out of Israel.

The Palestinians say the purpose of the wall is to annex West Bank land because it cuts into the territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 war.

Demonstration

To mark the opening of the hearings, several Palestinian groups and their supporters in Switzerland called a demonstration against the wall in Geneva for Monday evening. Other protests took place in The Hague and in the Arab world.

“The wall and its construction creates a lot of problems in terms of annexing land and the future co-existence of two peoples [Israelis and Palestinians],” said Alain Bittar, from Manifesto, one of the groups supporting the protest.

“The wall also stops us finding other peaceful solutions between the two peoples in the future,” Bittar told swissinfo.

Anis Al-Qaq, the Palestinian representative in Switzerland, went further, saying the wall was turning the affected Palestinian areas into ghettos and was preventing the creation of a Palestinian state.

“The construction of the ‘apartheid wall’ gives Israel pretty much half of West Bank,” said Al-Qaq.

“More than 200,000 people are affected by the wall. Their land has been confiscated and they have no access to health services and education,” he added.

Israeli reaction

But Daniel Halevy-Goetschel, spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Switzerland, told Swiss radio that every state had a right to defend its people. He said the ICJ was not “the appropriate forum” to rule on the matter because the dispute with the Palestinians was a political issue and not a legal one.

The Jewish community in Switzerland said it largely supported Israel’s position.

“The general view is that the wall is legal because it’s not a border - it’s not there for any other reason than to defend the population of Israel against the infiltration of terrorists,” Alfred Donath, head of the Swiss federation of Jewish communities, told swissinfo.

However, he added that not everyone in the Swiss Jewish community concurred with this view, and that there had been criticism of the barrier among Swiss Jews.

Donath said he wasn’t surprised that the Swiss government had asked the court to rule on the legality of the wall, even though both the European Union and the United States say the ICJ has no jurisdiction to decide the matter.

“The politics of Switzerland towards Israel is worse than the politics of the EU, in that the Swiss go further in what they think is legal or illegal than do the European community and the US,” he explained.

Swiss reaction

Earlier this month the Swiss government publicly gave its support to the court and said it should “make clear once and for all” if the fourth Geneva Convention - which protects civilians in times of war – was applicable in the occupied territories.

The government’s position is supported by Amnesty International Switzerland, which has criticised the wall for contravening human rights and international law. Amnesty Switzerland also welcomed Switzerland’s support of the ICJ.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) last week described the wall as a violation of international humanitarian law, and called on Israel to stop construction.

Symbolic importance

The court is due to sit for three days on the matter. It is hearing the case for the Palestinians but Israel has not sent a legal team.

Israel has instead put forward a written submission but it will not be making oral arguments in response to the Palestinian case at the court.

In its statement, Israel argues that a request for a ruling on the barrier by the United Nations General Assembly is biased because it does not mention terrorism directed at Israeli. It is also concerned that a ruling would undermine peace efforts.

The ruling - not legally binding - is not due until the summer but correspondents say it could have great symbolic importance.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold

Key facts

The West Bank barrier is about 600 kilometres long.
Some parts of it are eight metres high.
It is a network of metal fences, razor wire and concrete wall.
Construction began in June 2002.

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