Israel is considering a new name for its massive complex of walls, fences and watch towers in the West Bank — changing it from a “security fence” to the “Terror Prevention Fence” in an attempt to improve its international image.
The public relations battle over the contested fence is intensifying as authorities on both sides bring in high-powered legal and publicity advisers, reportedly spending millions of dollars, ahead of a Feb. 23 world court hearing on the wall’s legality.
On Thursday, the court decided that the Arab League would be allowed to take part in the hearing, allowing Arab nations to testify alongside the Palestinians.
The name change was one idea tossed around at a meeting Wednesday evening between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and high-ranking government officials, though a final decision was not made, foreign ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled said.
Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor who defended O.J. Simpson, has offered to help the Israeli campaign, officials said.
'Occupation is on trial'
More than the barrier is at stake. “In a way, the occupation is on trial,” said Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher. “The process in The Hague will get to some very basic questions.”
Israel says the barrier, which dips deep into the West Bank in some areas, is meant to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers and other attackers. Palestinians call it a land grab. The construction has sparked condemnation from some countries, with the visiting Irish foreign minister and 11 bishops from Europe and the Americas joining the growing group of critics on Thursday.
The two sides have until the end of this month to submit arguments to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Both parties are trying to keep their key arguments secret.
Both sides use names to evoke powerful images. The Palestinians have labeled the barrier the “Berlin Wall” or “apartheid wall,” noting that the planned route would enclose thousands of Palestinians and some 45,000 Jewish settlers by driving 20 miles into the West Bank.
The largest segments of the barrier — about a third of which has been finished — are made up of razor wire, trenches and electronic sensors. Israel says about 8 miles of it is made up of 25-foot-tall concrete slabs, including some that seal off parts of Jerusalem from the West Bank.
Preventing terror, or taking land?
Michael Tarazi, an American-born legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization, dismissed Israel’s proposed name change as a poor attempt to dress up hardships imposed on Palestinians by the wall. The barrier separates Palestinians from schools, medical clinics, jobs and farms.
“Regardless of what you call it, the effect is still the same: to take the maximum amount of Palestinian land,” he said.
Palestinians say the barrier is meant to leave them in fenced-in cantons and shatter hopes of forming an independent state. “The wall violates ... the human rights of the Palestinian people, (and) it kills the idea of a viable Palestinian state,” said Muin Shreim, an official with the Palestinian mission at the United Nations.
Justice Minister Yosef Lapid said the route of the barrier will doom Israel’s case in The Hague and could lead to international boycotts of Israel.
On Monday, Lapid is to present Cabinet ministers with maps for a proposed alternative route that would reduce hardships on Palestinians living near the barrier and shorten its length by 125 miles, his spokesman, Tzachi Moshe, said.
Under the current route, the barrier would be about 370 miles.
Four ministerial committees are preparing Israel’s defense, each one tackling a different point of argument: security, politics, law and public relations.
Peled didn’t know how much the effort would cost, but the Yediot Ahronot newspaper reported the government would spend $1 million in legal fees and was hiring three of the world’s top public relations firms.
Before the Hague hearings, Israel will get a dress rehearsal of sorts.
The Supreme Court said Thursday that a three-judge panel would hear a petition from an Israeli civil rights group challenging the legality of barrier sections built on West Bank land.
Some Israeli officials already are using the new name for the project. At a news conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday, a senior military official made a point of repeating several times: “This fence to my understanding is not a security fence, but an anti-terror fence.”
During more than three years of fighting, suicide bombers alone have killed 444 people in attacks on Israeli targets. In all, 2,619 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 909 on the Israeli side.
The Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the main idea behind the barrier is to prevent terrorism in hopes of creating an atmosphere in which peace talks can be re-launched.
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom on Thursday said Israel was upset by the involvement of the world court, which he said was hurting chances for restarting peace talks. “We don’t think that this issue should be discussed there,” he said.