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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Avi Dichter shrugged off the whole lawsuit issue as no more than an anecdote. "It's not my problem. I have no idea what they want from me," said the former Shin Bet chief, enjoying his last days in the American capital before plunging into his new career as a politician in Ariel Sharon's Kadima Party.
It is still unclear what exactly went on in New York last week, when representatives of several Palestinian families approached Dichter at a public event and tried to serve him with court papers. The plaintiffs say that they actually gave Dichter the envelope, and claim that as soon as he found out what it was, he dropped it on the floor. Dichter denied receiving anything from anyone during the event. Still, Israeli sources confirmed this week that the government of Israel is going to regard the papers as if they were formally served and will soon file its response to the US District Court in the Southern District of New York.
While the cat-and-mouse chase between a US civil rights group representing Palestinian families and the former head of the Israeli security service might seem amusing, it still has the potential of turning into a major legal issue. Dichter need not worry. This is a civil case and he will not be arrested or barred from entering the US in the future. He will probably not even have to come to court if the case is taken up by the judge. And in the event of a ruling against him, Dichter won't have to foot the bill. The state of Israel will take care of that.
But what is troubling Israeli officials about this case is the growing use, in the US and Europe, of the legal system to harass Israeli officials because of actions they took against Palestinians during the intifada. Until now, this has been little more than a nuisance - small legal matters handled by lawyers. But the "nuisance" is becoming more and more widespread.
The civil suit against Dichter was filed by three Palestinians from Gaza - Raed Matar, Mahnud Subhi al-Huweiti and Marwan Zeino - all victims of the July 22 Israel Air Force attack on the al-Daraj neighborhood of Gaza City. When warplanes dropped a one-ton bomb on a residential building, killing the targeted Hamas senior leader Saleh Shehade, 14 people - eight of them children - were also killed. Among them were the wife and three family members of plaintiff Matar, and the wife and two children of Al-Huweiti. Plaintiff Zeino sustained a severe spine injury.
The following is how the complaint describes Dichter's part in the bombing: "The acts and injuries to plaintiffs and their deceased relatives described herein, as well as some similarly situated, were part of a pattern and practice of systematic human rights violations designed, ordered, implemented directed with the participation of the defendant [Dichter] and carried out by military personnel acting at his direction and/or with his encouragement or acquiescence."
These claims against Dichter (who confirmed in several public speeches in Washington that, as head of the Shin Bet, he had approved each and every targeted killing, while stressing that the prime minister had to give the final green light) could easily be used against any IDF, security service or government official. In other words, today it is Dichter, but tomorrow it could be any other Israeli who took part in similar events during the intifada.
THE LEGAL basis for the suit is the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, a piece of American legislation that has not been in use for more than two centuries. With rising concern over international human rights, courts in the US began to accept civil suits against foreigners - mainly in cases of torture or war crimes. Dichter, it should be noted, is accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.
The idea behind the Alien Tort Claims Act was to allow citizens of other countries who do not have any legal avenues open to them at home to use the US court system to sue for compensation. It is considered rather difficult to get a ruling through the Alien Claims Tort Act, and the precedents are too few to speculate what will become of the Dichter case.
There is a possibility that the case will be dismissed before it goes to trial, if the judge is convinced by the response of the Israeli side. It is also possible that if the case does goes through and passes the dismissal motions and discovery phase, the ruling will be in favor of Dichter. The worst-case scenario for Israel is the court ruling in favor of the Palestinian plaintiffs and setting a sizable compensation (in this case, it could reach many millions of dollars, since it is a class-action suit representing all victims of the bombings). Such a scenario would not only be a large financial liability for Israel; it would encourage other Palestinians to opt for similar legal action.
Employees at the PLO offices in Washington testify to the difficulty these kinds of lawsuits can present. Since a Rhode Island court ruled against the Palestinians in the case of the murder of Yaron and Efrat Ungar in a drive-by shooting in 1996, they have not received their salaries for months. This is because the PLO and the Palestinian Authority are now forced to pay $116 million in compensation, and their accounts in the US were frozen in an attempt to get part of the sum.
American courts are gradually becoming a battlefield for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Israeli terror victims' families suing the PA and Iran - and now with Palestinians going after Israeli officials involved in targeted killings. This trend feeds on the growing tendency to pay more attention to international law and to see cases involving military conflicts as a global - rather than regional - legal issue.
Does this mean that Israeli officials will be subject to lawsuits every time they go abroad? The answer depends on the way the New York court deals with the Dichter case. If the court accepts the Palestinians' complaint, the door will be open for any other resident of the Palestinian territories who believes he has suffered from Israeli actions during the intifada. A dismissal of the case, on the other hand, would signal that the US (struggling itself against the right of the International Criminal Court to prosecute American soldiers and officials) wishes no longer to broaden its role in international law and turn into a legal arbitrator between Israelis and Palestinians.