There is only a slight chance that the International Court of Justice hearing on the West Bank security fence will be canceled at this stage, Foreign Ministry legal advisor Alan Baker said Sunday.
Baker's comments came after officials at the United Nations indicated Friday that they cannot ignore the objections that more than 30 countries submitted regarding ICJ's authority to rule on the fence, and said that the hearing itself was in doubt.
Fifteen members of the European Union and 10 members-in-waiting, as well as the United States, Canada, Australia, Russia, South Africa and Senegal joined Israel in submitting affidavits to the ICJ opposing the hearing. Several EU countries, including Germany, France and the United Kingdom, submitted their own separate affidavits to the court.
It was significant, if somewhat surprising, that so many countries submitted objections, said Baker. But he said it doesn't necessarily mean the hearing will be called off at this stage.
"The chances [of cancellation] are very slight," said Baker. "Maybe at the end. We have to go through the whole process."
Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat said Israel would have to cooperate with the court.
"They can't stop it... They are trying to put all the obstacles in front of this court, but not to forget this is a United Nations resolution and they have to carry on with it," Arafat told reporters Sunday after attending prayers for the Id al-Adha festival in a mosque in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
The court is the highest judicial body of the United Nations and took on the case at the request of the General Assembly. Its ruling on the fence's legality is nonbinding, but both sides have invested great effort in the case because the outcome is likely to influence international opinion.
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Saturday that he hoped that the objections filed would convince the court to cancel the hearing on the fence "because it is a political, not judicial issue."
Most of the countries who have called into question the authority of the court have also voiced concerns about the route of the fence where it strays from the Green Line into the West Bank. The EU has also expressed its opposition to the route of the barrier.
Israeli officials said they were pleased that most of the world's important democracies shared Israel's stand against the authority of the international court, despite the dispute over the fence route. The officials said that it was significant that countries who had abstained from the UN vote on the hearing, have now decided to submit affidavits objecting to the hearing.
In a statement to the Hague-based court, which is due to convene February 23 to discuss the issue, the U.S. said Friday that the issue of the fence was a political dispute, and should be resolved through negotiations between the two sides.
The American comments reflect earlier statements by Jerusalem and London questioning of the authority of the court.
"We believe that the court should not and cannot deal with this political issue, which has to be dealt with by direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians," said an official at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem after Israel filed its affidavit.
Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said he was angered by U.S. and British opposition to the World Court hearing on the legality of the fence.
"I cannot understand it," Erekat told The Associated Press. "We seek to use diplomacy against the wall in going to the (United Nations) Security Council and the court of justice, and we find these countries, the U.S. and Britain, trying to shut the door in our faces."
The Palestinian Authority said on Saturday it had submitted a formal affidavit to the court supporting its right to rule on the security fence. Erekat said the court had "full jurisdiction" and that the Palestinian position was submitted on Thursday based on how the barrier, which cuts deep into Palestinian land, affected the Palestinians' daily lives.
"The fact that it's being built in Palestinian territory is a flagrant violation of international law," he told Reuters Saturday.
Israel and other interested parties had until Friday to submit arguments on the issue to the court. Israel Radio reported, however, that the deadline had been extended by several days.
Meanwhile, an official at the British Foreign Office told Haaretz that Foreign Office minister Lady Symons believed that the hearing would "serve to politicize the court in a way for which it was not designed."
The British government has always expressed its disapproval of the fence, which it claims encroaches onto Palestinian land, and the Foreign Office said Thursday: "Our concerns relate to the role of the court, not the legality of the route of the fence. It remains our view that the building of the fence on Palestinian land is unlawful."
Lady Symons, who visited the Palestinian Authority last week to see the fence for herself, said that, while recognizing Israel's security concerns, "We do not believe that the security fence is in the right place. The 1967 line is where it should be, or indeed on the Israeli side of that line."
Israeli officials said Thursday's suicide bombing in Jerusalem highlighted their argument that the fence is necessary. Ten Israelis were killed and more than 50 wounded in the bus attack by a bomber from the West Bank city of Bethlehem, and the Foreign Ministry web site showed graphic footage of the immediate aftermath of the attack.
"We want to give people the possibility to see for themselves, especially when Israel as the victim is being put on the defendant's bench in The Hague ... why we need the fence," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled.
The Zaka rescue service, whose ultra-Orthodox members collect body parts after bombings, to ensure a proper Jewish burial, said Friday it was considering taking the charred remains of a bus hit in a suicide bombing to The Hague during the hearings, but that it hadn't worked out the logistics yet.
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