Israel's Supreme Court promised a speedy ruling on a petition filed by Israeli human rights groups to halt work on the West Bank separation barrier, a case seen as a dress rehearsal for a world court hearing over the contentious project.
In the Jerusalem court on Monday, Chief Justice Aharon Barak indicated his ruling might come before the Feb. 23 hearing in The Hague.
Responding to international criticism and the threat of the court cases, Israeli officials have said they would change the route of the barrier to ease some of the hardships on the Palestinians.
The barrier is one-quarter completed. Its planned route cuts deep into the West Bank in several places and encircles some Palestinian towns and villages, cutting off tens of thousands of people from their farmland, schools and social services.
Palestinians charge that the barrier is a thinly disguised Israeli land grab aimed at leaving Israel in control of large parts of the West Bank.
On Monday, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia was in Dublin, Ireland, trying to drum up EU opposition to the Israelis' planned barrier. Ireland currently holds the rotating presidency of the 15-nation EU.
"If they want to build it within Israeli territory, they are welcome," Qureia said.
"We have said from the beginning, if they want to build it on the green line [demarcating Israel from Palestinian Authority land], it's OK, there can be an agreement to build it along the green line," he said.
"But not one single inch on our territory -- that's it," he said.
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern restated the position of the EU that construction of the wall within Palestinian territory was "in contradiction to international law."
Also Monday, Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo said that in response to the barrier plan and other unilateral steps being considered by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the Palestinians are weighing the declaration of a state in all of the West Bank and Gaza.
In court on Monday, the Center for the Defense of the Individual argued that the partially built network of walls, razor wire and trenches infringes human rights and is a breach of international law.
It said that if Israel wants a barrier, it should be built on territory it held before seizing the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war.
Those arguments are also expected to be made by Palestinian delegates at the Hague hearings, which begin on Feb. 23. Israel does not recognize the old cease-fire line as a border.
Israel will tell the international tribunal that the 750km barrier is essential to stop Palestinian attacks in Israel, as state attorney Michael Blass told the court. During three years of violence, more than 400 Israelis have been killed in suicide bombings that originated in the West Bank.
"It is not we who unleashed the demon of terror," Blass said.
Chief Justice Barak, presiding over a panel of three judges, noted the approaching world court hearing. The judge said he would render a decision "as soon as possible."
Israel has challenged the world court's right to rule on the barrier, arguing that the issue is being manipulated by its opponents for political ends.
"We don't think the Hague court needs to debate this," Blass said.
"We think the issue should be resolved between the sides," he said.
Several other groups also filed objections about aspects of the barrier project.
Human rights lawyer Avigdor Feldman, representing one of the petitioners, said the world court case should be an incentive for the Israeli court to make an exhaustive examination of the facts.
Other lawyers said that a full-scale Israeli judicial review, generating responses from expert witnesses and written legal opinions, could provide useful ammunition to Israeli advocates at the Hague, while demonstrating the Israeli court's own competence.
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