Palestinians win legal right to sue Israel for damages

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The Israeli supreme court has overturned part of a 17-month-old blanket ban by the government on Palestinians seeking compensation for harm inflicted by the Israel Defence Forces.

The decision reopens the way for at least some law suits in the Israeli courts by Palestinians who suffer bereavement, injury or property damage at the hands of the Israeli military in Gaza or the West Bank, by cancelling a section of an amendment approved by the Knesset in July 2005.

The ruling, one of the last to be written by the recently retired court chairman Aharon Barak, was broadly welcomed by the left, and human rights groups. Adalah, one of the rights groups which had petitioned the court, said that the ruling, while "based on technicalities", would open the way for some claims through civil courts.

But right-wing Knesset members queued up to denounce the ruling and hinted at attempts to reintroduce the legislation through the Knesset. Attorney Yossi Fuchs, a member of the right-wing "Land of Israel Legal Forum" said: "The ruling is a parting gift from Aharon Barak to Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a gift that will buy Barak a respected status in the eyes of the international legal community at the expense of the security of Israel's citizens."

But despite this expansive condemnation, the practical application of the court's decision could be limited. Yehev Zekel, of the Israeli human rights group B'tselem, said the ruling was welcome but would not lead to a rush of claims for cases in which people or property had been harmed by Israeli military operations.

The ruling did not cancel the exclusion "of members of terrorist organisations" from making claims even if they were not involved at the time of the damage. And the state would still be able to argue that it was not liable in cases where civilians were victims of "acts of war".

In practice, this meant civilians harmed during incursions to detain wanted militants for example, would mostly find it difficult or impossible to prove their case. "The applicant may just be lucky and find a judge who is sympathetic," Mr Zekel said. He added that it might make suits easier in cases in which Palestinians were beaten at checkpoints, for example, or had their freedom of movement unduly restricted at great personal loss, and in which the state would find it hard to prove that "acts of war" were involved.

The liberalising effect of the ruling, however modest, will heighten interest in the rest of the last Barak judgments expected this week, including one on the vexed question of targeted assassinations of militants, which are widely regarded as being breaches of international law.

In Gaza, tension is high after the murder of the three sons of the Palestinian intelligence colonel Bahaa Balousha by unidentified gunmen. Hospital officials said that two members of the security forces loyal to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - of which Mr Balousha is a member - were wounded when gunfire was traded with the Hamas executive force in protests against the killings in the southern town of Khan Younis. A spokes-man for Hamas said two members had been wounded, one critically. Hamas angrily rejected claims by a Fatah official, Hussein al-Sheikh, that people "very close to Hamas" were responsible for the deaths.

Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for International Development, who on Monday became the first cabinet minister in more than six years to visit Gaza, has announced a £76m increase in funding over four years through the UN Works and Relief Organisation. He said: "This will help ensure that millions of Palestinians will get health care, education, housing, water and sanitation."