Who pays when Palestinians are harmed by Israeli forces?

Over the past 20 years, Israel has assembled an entire system to ensure it won’t have to pay compensation to Palestinians harmed by security forces in the occupied territories.

Israeli army medics carry away a young Palestinian stone thrower who was shot in the leg by undercover Israeli troops on the outskirts of Ramallah. A tourniquet can be seen on his leg where he was shot, October 7, 2015. (Muhannad Saleem/Activestills.org)
Israeli army medics carry away a young Palestinian stone thrower who was shot in the leg while being pinned down by undercover Israeli troops on the outskirts of Ramallah, October 7, 2015. (Muhannad Saleem/Activestills.org)

It is almost impossible for Palestinians to file successful civil suits against the Israeli military for harm caused to them in the occupied territories, thereby leaving them with no effective avenues for recourse, according to a report published by Israeli human rights clearinghouse B’Tselem on Wednesday.

As a result of a combination of legislation limiting Israel’s liability toward Palestinians, along with procedural hurdles erected by the military and civilian court systems, the number of civil suits successfully filed by Palestinians against the Israeli military has dropped dramatically in recent years.

Whereas between the years 2002 to 2006 Palestinians filed an annual average of 300 new lawsuits against the Israeli Defense Ministry, a yearly average of only 18 new suits were filed a decade later between the years 2012 and 2016 — a mere six percent of the previous decade’s figure — according to data the Defense Ministry provided B’Tselem.

The amount of compensation paid out by the Defense Ministry has also fallen dramatically over the years. From 1997 to 2001, Israel paid a yearly average of NIS 21.6 ($5.7 USD) in court-ordered compensation to Palestinians. “In contrast, from 2012 to 2016,” the report notes, “Israel paid an average of about 3.8 million shekels [approximately $1 million USD] — a decline of more than 80 percent.”

Read the full report: ‘Getting Off Scot-Free’

Taken together with a defunct military justice system that completely fails to offer justice to Palestinians wronged by Israel, the inability to seek civil recourse means that there are no effective mechanisms for achieving accountability for Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinian population ruled by its military.

The primary tool Israel uses to prevent Palestinians from successfully filing civil suits against the military, according to the report, is the designation of nearly all incidents in the occupied territory as “combat activities.” Such a designation exempts the state and its agents from any liability in civil — and for the most part in criminal — law.

In other words, Palestinians cannot sue the Israeli military for collateral damage in a combat operation. The problem is the broad expansion of what constitutes combat activities to include almost any action carried out by the army in the occupied territories, B’Tselem argues.

As the acting sovereign in the territories it occupies, however, the Israeli army assumes many roles that are not unique to combat situations — it also carries out countless policing activities, and comes into contact with the Palestinian population in many other ways that can result in unwarranted harm to the latter, yet do not even approach a reasonable definition of combat or warfare.

For instance, can dispersing a protest, something that civilian police forces around the world do every day, be considered combat activity just because it is being carried out by uniformed soldiers? How about manning a checkpoint used by civilians? Or an arrest raid in a residential neighborhood? Under Israeli law, if those activities are performed by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, it is considered combat and therefore exempt from civil liability.

The other main way that Israel precludes civil recourse for Palestinians harmed by Israeli security forces is through procedural hurdles. For instance, a Palestinian must notify in writing the Israeli Defense Ministry within 60 days after an incident that they intend to file suit at some point in the future. There is also a two-year statute of limitations for such suits; inside Israel, in contrast, the statute of limitations is seven years.

Then there is access to the court system itself. In addition to language barriers, Palestinians must ask the army — whom it is suing — for a special permit in order to enter Israel to attend court physically. For West Bank Palestinians that can be daunting, for Gazans it is often impossible.

Palestinian protesters are seen in a reflection on an ambulance where an injured Palestinian is treated during a protest near the Gaza border at the proximity of Erez crossing, Northern Gaza Strip, October 23, 2015. Tensions rise in recent weeks with violent attacks by both Israelis and Palestinians and clashes around the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem and Palestinian towns inside Israel. Since the beginning of October, 57 Palestinians have been killed in shootings and clashes with Israeli forces in the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel, while eight Israelis have been killed in knife and gun attacks. (Activestills.org)
Palestinian protesters are seen in a reflection of an ambulance where a wounded Palestinian is treated during a protest near Erez Crossing, northern Gaza Strip, October 23, 2015. (Activestills.org)

Perhaps most stunning, however, is a requirement that Palestinians who want to sue the State of Israel for damages caused by its security forces must first deposit tens of thousands of shekels just to have their case heard. The court deposits are often NIS 20,000 ($5,400 USD) for each plaintiff.

The average daily wage for West Bank Palestinians in 2015 was NIS 120 ($32 USD). Assuming a five-day work week, it would take the average Palestinian in the West Bank more than eight months — assuming no other expenses — to earn enough money just to file a lawsuit, most of which are themselves meant to compensate for lost income due to injury or death.

All together, these barriers mean that in the vast majority of cases, “no one is held accountable when the human rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories are violated,” the B’Tselem report notes. “[T]here is no authority in place to hold [Israel] accountable for its actions: The military law enforcement system whitewashes offences, the High Court gives a legal seal of approval for violating Palestinians’ human rights, and the state has guaranteed itself an all but absolute exemption from paying compensation to Palestinians injured by its security forces.”

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