A break for Palestinians

Israeli court opens way to compensation for some army damage


JERUSALEM --In an important and controversial ruling, the Israeli Supreme Court threw out part of a law yesterday that prevented Palestinians from seeking compensation from Israel for damage from Israeli army activities in the occupied territories.

The ruling, which was unanimous, opens the way for Palestinians harmed in "nonbelligerent" army operations in the West Bank or Gaza to seek redress for damage. But the court left standing a provision that bars compensation to Palestinians harmed in combat operations.

The law also bars compensation to citizens of "enemy states" or to "activists or members of a terrorist organization," which would include Hamas, elected last January to run the Palestinian Authority.

According to the law, in the form of an amendment passed by the Israeli Parliament in July 2005, the army, security services and the state were considered immune retroactively from being sued for damage caused since Sept. 29, 2000, which is when the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, is considered to have broken out.

Petitioners in the case contended that the "intifada law," as it is known, prevented the filing of lawsuits that might have resulted in judgments of many thousands of dollars. Those suits may now be filed.

The state argued that "the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians since the year 2000 is a war in every respect."

But Chief Justice Aharon Barak wrote that Israel's continuous military presence in the territories "left many harmed who were not involved in any hostile activity."

The petitioners, nine groups led by Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, argued that the law was "racist and unethical," violated international humanitarian law, violated fundamental rights to life and property and removed a form of civilian control over the activities of the army and security forces in the occupied territories.

The petition, which was filed in September 2005, was also filed in the name of the Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, B'Tselem and other groups.

Hundreds of family members of Palestinians injured or killed during military or security operations in the West Bank and Gaza are now expected to file claims, as well as businesses damaged by errant shells or even, perhaps, by the security-based closure of the Karni crossing point between Israel and Gaza. According to Israel Radio, there are already about 550 damage claims by Palestinians pending in Israeli courts.

A spokesman for Adalah suggested that claims could also be forthcoming from Palestinians hurt at checkpoints.

The court decision, written by Barak, is one of a series the court reached before his retirement and that are expected to be handed down soon.

The ruling was immediately criticized by some legislators, with Michael Eitan of the right-leaning Likud party filing a petition to the speaker of the Israeli Parliament calling for an urgent meeting on the ruling. He asserted that the ruling would damage the army's ability to act in defense of Israel.

Benjamin Elon of the National Union, also on the right, said, "The high court that cancels laws and doesn't understand that we are at war is becoming one of the state of Israel's gravest existential problems."

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