Ramallah - A report published by Israeli human rights watchdog B'Tselem on Wednesday says Israel has been making it virtually impossible for Palestinians to receive compensation for injuries and property damages caused by its security forces in non-combat situations.
The report, called Getting Off Scot-Free: Israel’s Refusal to Compensate Palestinians for Damages Caused by Its Security Forces, is based on new data provided by the ministry of defense about the outcome of civil lawsuits. The data shows a dramatic drop in compensation payments made to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, from an annual average of 21.6 million shekels (approx. USD 5.7 million) from 1997 to 2001 to 3.8 million shekels (approx. USD 1 million) a year from 2012 to 2016 – a decline of more than 80%. At the same time, claims for damages dropped by 95% as Palestinians stopped filing new claims. While 300 claims were filed on average each year from 2002 to 2006, 2012 to 2016 saw an annual average of 18 claims.
These numbers, B'Tselem argues, are the result of Israeli measures and policies that have progressively allowed the state to grant itself a blanket exemption from paying compensation, an obligation under international law.
Under Israel's Torts Law, the state is exempted from paying compensation for damages that are a result of “warfare activity”. During the first intifada and in its aftermath, Palestinians filed thousands of lawsuits for damages and injuries incurred outside of combat, including instances of unlawful gunfire, destruction of property or torture during interrogation. However, the process was costly and lengthy, and most cases ended with a settlement and Palestinians receiving smaller amounts than they should have for the harm they incurred.
In the mid-90s, Israel began broadening the definition of “warfare activity,” stepping up such efforts during the second intifada, with both legislative amendments and through the courts' own rulings, which began to include more and more types of incidents under this definition.
A series of procedural and evidentiary restrictions were also introduced as part of the legislative amendments, including shortening the timeframe for filing a claim to just two years (compared to the seven years the law designated for other tort suits in Israel), and informing the Ministry of Defense of the harm suffered in writing within 60 days of the injury. In addition, Palestinians are asked to pay a high fee as guarantee when filing a claim.
“Through these actions, Israel has lowered the price to be paid for harm to Palestinians while maintaining a false show of a functioning justice system,” B'Tselem wrote.
In 2011, Nabi Saleh resident Mustafa Tamimi was killed during a demonstration when an Israeli soldier fired a tear-gas canister directly at him, in breach of regulations. In 2013, the military police investigation on the case was closed without pressing charges against the soldier or his commanders. The family filed a lawsuit for damages, however last month the courts rejected it on grounds that it was the result of “warfare activities” and asked the Tamimis to pay NIS 60,000 [over USD 16,000] for the state’s court costs.
Last year, a B’Tselem report showed how the military court system serves as a whitewash mechanism, and prompted the organisation to boycott the military investigation system altogether and stop filing complaints. The decision was based on information B'Tselem had gathered over the course of 25 years, when hundreds of complaints were shelved, and dozens of military police investigations were closed with no charges. Local avenues have to be exhausted before taking cases to the ICC.
Photo: a march in Nabi Saleh to commemorate Mustafa Tamimi