JERUSALEM – The International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled Friday that Israel’s security barrier in the West Bank is illegal and ordered Israel to tear down the structure and pay reparations to Palestinians whose property was destroyed during its construction.

Building the barrier, which eventually will be 425 miles long, is “tantamount to de facto annexation” and impedes Palestinians’ right to self-determination, court President Shi Jiuyong said, adding that the structure violated international and humanitarian law.

The ruling was nonbinding and is likely to have little practical impact other than to sway public opinion. The International Court was set up by the United Nations to adjudicate international disputes, although it lacks a means to enforce decisions.

Israel says it’s building the barrier to keep out suicide bombers, but the court sided with the Palestinian interpretation. It ruled the wall’s existence and location “gravely infringe” upon Palestinians in the West Bank by destroying and confiscating their property and cutting off their access to water and work. The territory is land that Israel deems disputed. But U.N. Security Council resolution 242 called for Israeli withdrawal from land occupied in the 1967 war, including the West Bank.

“The infringements resulting from that route cannot be justified by military exigencies or by the requirements of national security or public order,” the court ruled in a complex decision handed down in The Hague. The lone American judge on the 15-member panel opposed the findings.

Israel rejected the ruling, dismissing it as a “politically motivated maneuver.”

The United States said the world court was an inappropriate forum for the issue.

“This is an issue that should be resolved through the process that has been put in place, specifically the road map” peace plan, said White House spokesman Scott McClellan, speaking aboard Air Force One.

Palestinian leadership vowed to take the issue to the United Nations to press for sanctions against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government. The United States and many European countries that opposed the court’s hearing of the matter are likely to block any sanctions, even though the European Commission on Friday again urged Israel to dismantle the barrier.

Palestinian leaders reveled in the court’s condemnation of Israel, which gave them a badly needed boost after international criticism grew over their failure to restrain militants and end a nearly four-year uprising.

“This is a historic day and a historic decision,” Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said as the ruling was read. “This wall is illegal and it should be stopped, demolished as the hated enemy of segregation.”

Added Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian delegation that went to The Hague: “This is the beginning of the end, not only of the wall, but also of the occupation.”

But Israeli officials said they would continue to build the barrier, which they are rerouting near Jerusalem in response to Israeli court rulings that demanded that more attention be paid to Palestinian civil rights.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled said the dispute over the fence could be resolved only through Israeli-Palestinian talks, which wouldn’t happen unless terror attacks stop.

“The fence is reversible, whereas the lives taken by terror are not,” Peled said. “The solutions to the problem lie in Ramallah and Gaza, from where the terror is directed, not The Hague or for that matter, Manhattan,” where the United Nations is located.

The U.N. General Assembly had asked the court to rule on the issue after it voted last October to demand that Israel tear it down. The court held a hearing in February, attended by throngs of Palestinian demonstrators and pro-Israeli groups that displayed photographs of hundreds of victims of Palestinian terror attacks.

The Israeli government refused to appear before the court, a decision that the leadership didn’t regret, government spokesman Avi Pazner said Friday. “Their decision to go to court was a political one taken by a body with an automatic anti-Israeli majority,” he said.

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