Socrates was the first thinker to contend that it is better to suffer injustice than to perpetrate it. Those who carry out injustices, he argued, corrupt their own souls and are ultimately ruined from within. The great Greek philosopher consequently maintained that society helps the criminal by imposing upon him or her a penalty, since the punishment serves to cleanse the soul and thus allows the lawbreaker to live a more just life. Accordingly, courts of law that mete out sentences — insofar as they follow universal principles of justice — not only protect society from offenders, but also save offenders from themselves.
It is precisely in the context of Socrates’ teachings that Sharon’s government and United Nations Security Council should understand the ruling regarding Israel’s separation barrier. Although the International Court of Justice (ICJ) claimed that Israel is in breach of international law and is therefore guilty of wrongdoing, its decision is, paradoxically, also pro-Israeli.
Let’s begin with the facts. The so-called separation barrier is made up of a series of fences, trenches, walls, and patrol roads, which are not constructed on the internationally recognized border between Israel and the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, but rather deep inside Palestinian territories. The length of the proposed barrier, which winds around Jewish settlements and surrounds Palestinian villages, transforming them, as it were, into islands, is about 650 km — more than twice the length of the international border. It often runs in between Palestinian communities, thus undermining the argument that the barrier is being built to separate Israelis from Palestinians and in this way to ensure the security of the former.
Rather, the barrier is being employed as a mechanism to expropriate Palestinian land and create facts on the ground that will affect any future arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians. As in the case of the Jewish settlements, it is being used to annex Palestinian territories and has in effect become a barrier against peace, rather than a barrier against terrorists.
In its ruling the ICJ made clear that the barrier’s repercussions on basic rights are appalling. According to the ICJ, “the wall, along the route chosen, and its associated regime, gravely infringe a number of rights of Palestinians residing in the territory occupied by Israel, and the infringements resulting from that route cannot be justified by military exigencies or by the requirements of national security or public order.”
Thus, the ICJ recognized that the separation barrier, which was ostensibly built to satisfy security needs, is being used as an extremely efficient weapon of dispossession. It took into account that over 875,000 Palestinians will be directly affected by the barrier, amounting to 38 percent of the West Bank population. Children are already unable to reach schools, adults are unable to reach work, and patients do not have access to hospitals. The economic ramifications have been just as bad, inflicting further suffering on a whole society, 50 percent of which, as the World Bank has claimed, are already living under conditions of grinding poverty — defined at less than US$2.1 per day. All of which suggests that the Palestinians’ basic rights to freedom of movement and livelihood as well as the rights to education, health and even burial are being systematically abused.
While the Court did not say as much, its ruling also suggests that there is a qualitative difference between a barrier whose function is to demarcate a border between two countries, and a barrier used to create a prison. Israel, so the verdict implies, has built a prison, placing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians “behind bars” and thus punishing a whole population.
Yet, the ICJ’s ruling not only aims to protect the Palestinians from collective punishment, but also hopes to protect Israel from itself. By trying to stop the construction of a barrier that violates the basic rights of hundreds of thousands of people, the judges are also attempting to cleanse Israel, which, according to international law, has turned into a criminal state.
While the Court’s ruling has no claws, it should be understood as an opportunity. The U.S. together with other members of the Security Council should use it in order to insist that Israel dismantle the separation barrier and immediately enter diplomatic negotiations with its Palestinian neighbors. Getting the two parties back to the negotiation table is the only way to reach a viable peace. Only peace — and not barriers or military might — can put an end to the vicious cycle of violence plaguing the Middle East.
NEVE GORDON is a member of Ta’ayush, Arab-Jewish Partnership and is editor of From the Margins of Globalization: Critical Perspectives on Human Rights (forthcoming Rowman and Littlefield). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org