Court Lets Palestinians Sue Israeli Military

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 13, 2006

JERUSALEM, Dec. 12 -- Israel's high court ruled Tuesday that Palestinians have the right to sue the Israeli military for damages caused by some of its operations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, overturning parts of a law that had given the security forces broad immunity to such claims.

Meanwhile in Gaza, gunfire broke out between the armed wings of the Fatah and Hamas movements in the city of Khan Younis a day after the killing of a senior Palestinian intelligence officer's three children in Gaza City. Four men affiliated with Fatah were injured in the shooting, which may have occurred mistakenly after Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas deployed security forces under his control across the territory to ensure calm.

The Israeli court's unanimous decision will allow hundreds of private Palestinian lawsuits to proceed. The ruling nullifies the 2005 "civil wrongs law" that protected the military from damage claims in conflict zones, a designation that covered nearly all of the occupied territories during the Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000.

The activist court is often at odds with Israel's parliament, which since the uprising began has been largely controlled by hawkish parties.

The ruling stipulated that claims would be considered only if damages were sustained in operations that were not strictly military in nature. Hassan Jabareen, director of Adalah, an Israeli center for Arab minority rights, one of the nine human rights groups that petitioned the court to overturn the law, said eligible cases would include claims of theft, looting, shootings, and operations found to be illegal under Israeli law.

The court also left in place a provision of the law that excluded any "citizen of an enemy state" or "member of a terrorist organization" from receiving compensation. The court said the petitioners did not bring sufficient evidence to support their argument that such plaintiffs were entitled to damages.

"One of the major points we were making in this case was that you cannot ensure human rights without allowing suits for damages," said Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, one of the organizations that challenged the law. Michaeli said that, although the ruling covered "only a portion of those affected" by Israel's military operations, the decision was "still an important one."

"It will increase the accountability of the IDF operating in the territories," said Michaeli, referring to the Israeli military by its acronym.

Hawkish lawmakers criticized the ruling and requested a delay in its implementation to draft legislation with the same intent that would survive legal scrutiny. The ruling takes immediate effect and applies retroactively to claims filed since September 2000. Michael Eitan, a Likud Party legislator, said the decision threatens "the ability of the security services to operate effectively."

In Gaza, questions remained over the children's shooting, which has brought Hamas and Fatah to the brink of armed confrontation after months of relative calm between them. The three boys, ranging in age from 6 to 9, were the only sons of Baha Balousha, an intelligence official with Abbas's Fatah movement.

Some Fatah officials continued to suggest that Hamas, the rival Islamic movement in charge of the Palestinian Authority, bore responsibility for the children's shooting. Hamas officials have condemned the attack and denied any role.

Witnesses said the incident in Khan Younis was the result of a misunderstanding during a protest march over the shooting. As Fatah demonstrators passed a Hamas charity organization, they fired assault rifles into the air. Hamas gunmen fired briefly in response.

Special correspondents Islam Abdel Kareem in Gaza and Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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