Atta Sabah had little hope for justice after an Israeli soldier shot him while he was attempting to retrieve his book bag from a field behind his school.
“I’m not expecting anything to happen to [the soldier who shot me],” Atta, then 12, said soon after the May 2013 incident in Jalazone refugee camp, near the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah.
Atta’s school, run by UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees, is a mere 200 meters away from the Beit El settlement colony. Soldiers guarding the settlement regularly harass children in the camp, even while they are in school.
Incidentally, a major bankroller of Beit El is set to be confirmed as US ambassador to Israel.
All Israeli settlements on occupied land are illegal under international law. The transfer of an occupying power’s civilian population to the territory it occupies is a breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention and thus a war crime.
The soldier’s bullet left Atta paralyzed from the waist down. Atta was treated for months in Israeli hospitals and struggled to adjust to his new situation when he came home.
His father enrolled him in a school accessible for people with disabilities. A few miles away from Jalazone camp, it costs his family some $35 each day for Atta to take a taxi to school and back.
He receives physical therapy funded by the Palestinian Authority, and his parents swapped apartments with one of Atta’s uncles so that their living space could be fitted with an elevator that allows Atta greater mobility. Installing the elevator cost approximately $10,500, only a third of which was covered by humanitarian assistance.
Atta’s father pays out-of-pocket for medication that adds up to more than $250 each month. Atta will need to take these medications for the rest of his life.
Atta’s parents weren’t able to work for four months following their son’s injury.
“I want to know, who pays for that?” Muhammad Sabah, father to Atta and eight other children, asks in a recent video produced by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem (watch it at the top of this page).
Muhammad, a laborer, says he receives a monthly stipend of less than $370 from the Palestinian Authority, but it is not enough to cover all the costs associated with Atta’s injury.
Immunity from compensation
The Sabah family are hardly alone in their struggle to cope with expenses due to injuries caused by Israeli forces.
Changes to Israeli law and a broadened court exemption from paying compensation, as well as stricter evidentiary rules shifting the burden of proof from the state to the plaintiff, all but bar Palestinians from getting compensated.
“The obligation to provide compensation is enshrined in international law and derives directly from every person’s right to life, security and property,” B’Tselem states in a new report on Israel’s refusal to compensate Palestinians harmed by its forces.
“Paying compensation to persons who have suffered injury to themselves or to their property is not an act of charity – it is the state’s obligation under international law,” according to B’Tselem.
Israeli law “exempts the state from paying compensation for acts performed during ‘warfare activity,’” and for years left interpretation of that exemption to the courts when deciding individual cases.
A series of amendments to the law between 2002 and 2012 resulted in an expanded definition of “warfare activity” that, according to B’Tselem, “effectively encompasses any action by Israeli security forces in the occupied territories.”
Another change to the law exempted the state from liability to enemy nationals and “for damage caused in a conflict zone as a result of an act by the security forces.”
This allowed Israel’s defense minister “to declare most of the West Bank a conflict zone for the better part of the second intifada,” the Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000, according to B’Tselem.
Similarly, the entire Gaza Strip was declared an “enemy territory” in September 2005, after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal of its settlers and its redeployment of its occupation forces to the perimeter of the territory.
Meanwhile, procedural and evidentiary limitations have also shielded the state from paying compensation to Palestinians.
These include shortening the statute of limitations for when a claim can be made, and high filing fees and guarantees that must be deposited by the plaintiff that can add up to tens of thousands of dollars.
Shift in burden of proof
Israel further asserts that it faces difficulties in gathering evidence to defend itself against claims by Palestinians, including examining the scenes at which incidents took place, verifying medical documents, and locating and bringing witnesses to court.
An amendment to its law “prohibited shifting the burden of proof to the state,” according to B’Tselem. “As a result, plaintiffs are required to prove things they have absolutely no way of knowing, such as what orders the soldiers were given or what weapons they used.”
The Israeli state argues that it cannot properly address claims made against it in compensation cases, yet it goes to great lengths to appear as though its military has a robust internal investigative mechanism.
“When it feels it is in its best interests to do so, the state boasts of the professionalism of its military law enforcement that effectively investigates incidents of injury to Palestinians by security forces; when it feels advantageous to argue otherwise, it says that it cannot carry out the selfsame task,” B’Tselem states.
Though compensation lawsuits can take years to be resolved, B’Tselem says that changes made to legislation and in case law have meant that far fewer claims are being filed with the courts.
From 2002 to 2006, there was an annual average of 300 new lawsuits. From 2012 to 2016, the annual average was 18 claims – “a mere 6 percent of the average a decade earlier,” according to B’Tselem.
Meanwhile, Israel is paying out significantly less compensation to Palestinians.
From 1997 to 2001, the state paid an annual average of approximately $5.7 million in payouts, whereas from 2012 to 2016, the annual average was around $1 million – “a decline of more than 80 percent in comparison to the sums paid a decade earlier.”
Israel’s military occupation, now entering its sixth decade, is not any less harmful to Palestinians than it was 10 years ago. Last year was the deadliest for Palestinian children in the West Bank in more than a decade.
More than one out of every thousand of Gaza’s 1.8 million residents was killed during Israel’s 51-day assault in 2014.
In Jalazone refugee camp, Atta recently told B’Tselem he has “come to terms with my new reality.”
His grades have improved, and he says he “managed to overcome my frustration and depression thanks to the support of my parents and friends.”
He joined a basketball team and is involved in efforts to advance the rights of people with disabilities.
His dream to become a veterinarian “was destroyed by the Israeli sniper who paralyzed me.”
Now he is “thinking of studying to become a lawyer, so I can defend Palestinians from the exploitation and violation of their rights by Israelis.”