After a delay of eight months, the High Court of Justice on Monday finally held a hearing on an appeal by the Palestinian Authority involving 15 lawsuits for damages caused by Palestinian terrorists during the so-called al-Aksa intifada.
However, instead of hearing the sides, Supreme Court President Aharon Barak asked them to submit their final arguments in writing, saying there was no reason for them to plead their cases orally. He gave each side three months to prepare their final arguments, meaning that there will be a delay of more than half a year before the matter is settled. The appeal was submitted to the Supreme Court in the spring of 2003.
Attorney Nitzana Darshan-Leitner, who represents three of the plaintiffs in the lawsuits, said she was very disappointed by the court's decision. "If they did not intend to hear our arguments today, they could have told us half a year ago to submit them in writing. Everything is justifiable apparently, except the Palestinian Authority."
Dozens of lawsuits have been submitted to the district courts in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem since the beginning of the intifada. About 50 to 100 of them have been filed by terror victims and a dozen more by hotels and other tourism-related businesses that have been economically hurt and by insurance companies that have had to pay for stolen cars.
On February 11, 2002, then-Jerusalem District Court President Vardi Zeiler decided to appoint a panel of three judges to hear all of the lawsuits that had been filed until then, since in all of them, the PA raised the same procedural argument that the court was not empowered to hear the case.
During the trial, Jerusalem Attorney Yossi Arnon, who defended the PA, presented several arguments for dismissing the lawsuits, all of which dealt with the legal status of the PA and the proper forum for taking legal action against it.
He argued, for example, that the PA was a state or almost a state and therefore immune from lawsuits. He also argued that the Israeli court was not the proper forum for hearing disputes between two sovereign entities and that these should be heard by an international body designated for this purpose. He also argued that if the suit were to be heard, it should be heard in a Palestinian court according to Palestinian law.
The Jerusalem District Court issued its ruling on March 3, 2003. In a split decision, Judges Moshe Gal and Miriam Mizrahi ruled that it was up to the state to decide whether the PA was immune from prosecution in a local Israeli court. This meant that the Foreign Ministry must issue a document stating that the PA was immune from prosecution. The third judge, Moshe Drori, ruled that the PA could be tried in an Israeli court even if the Foreign Ministry issued an immunity document.
The judges also decided unanimously that the question of the proper forum had to be decided by each judge in each individual lawsuit, but added that in most cases it seemed that the Israeli court was the proper forum. They also ruled that if the lawsuits were heard, they could be heard in accordance with Israeli law.
In its response to Arnon's arguments, the state made clear that it does not recognize the PA as a state. "The position of the Attorney-General is that the PA does not meet the criteria of a state in accordance with international law," wrote the state's representatives, Attorneys Orit Soen, Na'omi Zimrat and Michal Sharvit. "There is no disagreement about this and it is also the accepted view in other countries."
Arnon told The Jerusalem Post that if the Supreme Court accepted any one of his arguments, the lawsuits, totaling millions of shekels, would all be thrown out of court.
In his ruling Monday, Barak intimated that he might appoint an expanded panel of justices to rule on Arnon's appeal.
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