The United Nations has passed nearly 100 resolutions critical of Israel since 1947, but when the U.N. sought the opinion of the International Court of Justice in 2004 on the legality of the Israeli West Bank barrier then under construction, Richard Heideman saw a possible dangerous and illegal precedent limiting the rights of a country to defend its citizens. The story of his efforts as lead counsel in the hearings that followed and why the case continues to matter so much for Israel and nations around the globe is told in his just published book, The Hague Odyssey: Israel’s Struggle for Security on the Front Lines of Terrorism and Her Battle for Justice at the United Nations (Bartleby).
“Israel has the right and the obligation to defend its people,” Heideman said in an interview at the launch of his book last Wednesday at the National Press Club.
As president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Heideman filed a brief with the ICJ on behalf of his organization. The United States and other countries similarly lodged their support of Israel but the FDD was the only nongovernmental organization to do so.
“My positions have been well-known for a decade,” he said.
The barrier was created as a reaction to the second Intifada, which began in late 2000 and saw mounting numbers of terrorist attacks in Israel, many of whose perpetrators crossed into Israel from the West Bank. Referred to by the Israeli government as a security fence, the barrier was originally designed to run approximately 430 miles and combine concrete slabs, multifence systems and trenches to stop vehicles. Although supposed to follow pre-1967 partition borders, it drew the ire of Palestinian leaders who alleged that the true purpose of the barrier was to annex parts of the Palestinian territory.
“There were accusations of it being a new de facto border,” Heideman said.
Internationally, Israel was accused of being a racist state on par with South Africa before apartheid ended and the barrier blamed as the cause of extra difficulties and problems for Palestinians unjustified by Israeli security concerns.
“There was no acknowledgement of the attacks,” Heideman said. “The goal was to demonize Israel.”
As counsel, Heideman argued that not only was Israel right to build the barrier, but that the method and very motives behind the hearings and the request for an advisory opinion indicated a hostile prejudice against Israel.
“The question itself presumed that Israel is an occupying power,” Heideman said.
After initial construction of the barrier, Israel did see a rapid drop-off in suicide attacks and the eventual tapering off of the Intifada. Irrespective of any political questions, it’s hard to argue that it did not improve the safety of Israelis, Heideman said.
“The fence is essential for security,” he explained. “No country would have acted differently.”
In the end, the ICJ issued an advisory advocating the dismantlement of the barrier which the U.N. then adapted into a resolution with the same opinion. Israel refused to accept that jurisdiction applied and continued to build the barrier. After the agreements with the Palestinian National Authority in 2007, however, Israel ceased construction although the barrier built up to that point is maintained.
After his experiences at The Hague, Heideman said he felt there was a need for people, especially Americans who may have not even been aware of what happened, to know about and understand how important the hearings were and how they may be vital to Israel’s future and even how countries globally deal with security concerns. And despite the current state of affairs between Israel and the U.N., Heideman said change is always possible.
“We always hope for more,” Heideman said.