Palestinians walk past a damaged car as they return to their house after filling containers with water from a public tap in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.
For more than 20 years, Israel has evaded compensating Palestinians for damages incurred as a result of IDF actions, according to a B’Tselem report released on Wednesday.
Israel has “taken measures to guarantee a nearly blanket exemption from its obligation under international law to pay compensation to Palestinians harmed by its security forces,” the report said.
The report discusses the development of this “practice,” linking it to a major drop in the number of damages claims filed by Palestinians in recent years, and focuses on cases where the IDF may not have committed a crime, but its negligence harmed or even killed Palestinian civilian bystanders caught in an altercation.
B’Tselem argues that a range of carefully planned legal moves by the Knesset, the courts and relevant ministries have created obstacles to Palestinian lawsuits and “reflects how little value it [Israel] places on the lives, bodies and property of Palestinians living under its control.”
The group claims that Israel’s actions have “lowered the price to be paid for harm to Palestinians while maintaining a false show of a functioning justice system.”
Evidence provided in the report includes data obtained from the Defense Ministry, such as from 1997-2001, the state paid an annual average of NIS 21.6 million to Palestinians who sued for civil damages compared to NIS 3.8 million from 2012-2016, representing a decline of more than 80%.
The report says that following this low rate of success, Palestinians have all but stopped filing new claims with the courts. From 2002-2006, there was an annual average of 300 new lawsuits, whereas from 2012-2016, there was an average of only 18 claims – a drop of nearly 95%.
Israel has said that growing limitations on the damages claims process are linked to rising terrorism and other threats, and that many of the claims will be easier to resolve as part of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
B’Tselem’s report comes in the aftermath of a February decision by the Jerusalem District Court rejecting a civil damages claim by the family of a Palestinian killed by the IDF in 2011 that was fined NIS 60,000 toward the state’s court costs.
One of the main arguments in the report is that Israel has abused a universally recognized defense to civil damages lawsuits known as the “combat activities exception.”
The idea is that a certain range of negligence is unavoidable in war and can be caused by both warring sides, and that most of this kind of damage should not allow warring sides to sue each other.
However, B’Tselem said that Israel has passed legislation that broadens the legal definition of what constitutes a “combat activity” that exempts the state from liability.
According to the report, the state has introduced a series of procedural and evidentiary roadblocks, rendering “virtually nonexistent the chances of Palestinian plaintiffs currently getting compensation for the harm they suffered.”
The roadblocks include having to front tens of thousands of shekels to guarantee the state’s expenses if the lawsuits fails, a requirement to notify the state within 60 days of an incident and a statute of limitations of only two years to sue, even as other similar cases in Israel would have seven years to sue.
“There are few kinds of injustice that cannot be codified in law, and it is possible to establish systems that offer no more than a pretense of law enforcement. Yet it is impossible to fully conceal the reality of the occupation,” the report said.
It is unclear exactly what B’Tselem would want Israel to change other than removing some of the newly expanded procedural hurdles, though even those hurdles would still leave most claimants without compensation.
The Justice Ministry responded to the report saying, “It should be stressed that the Israeli legal system allows Palestinian from the West Bank and Gaza to submit civil suits to courts in Israel. Currently, there are 196 Palestinian plaintiffs, 85 of which are residents of Gaza, whose claims for compensation for damages to person or property are pending before Israeli courts.”
Also, a claim may be filed with the Defense Ministry “which is charged with examining, in rare, exceptional humanitarian situations, petitions for financial compensation, ex gratia. These claims are examined where the state has no liability according to law,” the Justice Ministry said.
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