Legal action against Israel increases over Gaza assault

RAMALLAH, occupied West Bank (IPS) - As the legal and moral implications of the UN Goldstone report on Israel’s military assault on Gaza continue to mount, Palestinians in Gaza are taking matters into their own hands and preparing civil lawsuits.

The Israeli defense ministry’s prosecution department has received about 1,500 notices of future civil lawsuits against the Israeli military over damage caused to Palestinians and their property, and loss of earning capacity during “Operation Cast Lead,” Israel’s codename for its three-week attack on the coastal territory.

Israel is expected to counter-argue that it was fighting on foreign territory and so it bears no legal responsibility for the aftermath of its intensive bombing campaign.

However, under international law Gaza is still considered occupied by Israel as the Israeli authorities continue to control the territory’s borders, airspace, coastline, population registration, and electricity and water supplies.

The Israeli military has also established wide buffer zones within Gaza’s borders and forbidden Palestinian farmers from approaching their agricultural lands situated within the buffer areas. A number of Palestinians have been shot dead or wounded for entering the zones.

Furthermore, the Israeli navy prevents Palestinian fishermen from pursuing their livelihoods along Gaza’s coastline by limiting fishing to a three nautical-mile zone out to sea. Several fishermen have been killed, many more wounded, and dozens of boats have been shot at or destroyed for going beyond the zone.

As South African Justice Richard Goldstone’s UN report on war crimes in Gaza continues to gain international legitimacy, the Gazans behind the civil lawsuits, which include claims that amount to tens of millions of dollars, are launching their action without waiting for the UN’s final verdict.

The matter is due to be discussed at the UN General Assembly next week.

This is not the first time that Palestinians have successfully filed lawsuits against the Israeli military. It follows precedents set during the first and second intifadas, or uprisings, when injured Palestinians were financially compensated for injuries sustained during clashes with the Israeli army.

As a result of the payouts the Israeli parliament or Knesset is working on formulating a new law which will substantially limit the lawsuits which can be brought by Palestinians against the state. Only rare claims on a humanitarian basis will be considered.

Simultaneously as Gazans prepare to take legal action human rights lawyers and pro-Palestinian activists in a number of European countries are preparing lists with the names of Israeli officers they allege were involved in war crimes in Gaza.

The lawyers have been collecting Palestinian testimonies and other evidence. Legislation in a number of European countries would allow warrants to be issued against the officers involved if they set foot in these countries, which include Britain, Holland, Spain, Belgium and Norway.

Daniel Machover, one of the attorneys involved, told the Israeli daily Haaretz that a list of names of Israeli officers is already on a British police watch list, and should they travel to Britain they could face detention.

The Israeli military has already advised the relevant Israeli officers to consult with legal experts at the Israeli Foreign Ministry for advice before they travel abroad. This advice has included keeping a low profile in certain countries and avoiding others.

The Goldstone report has strengthened the case of the European lawyers, the lawsuits filed by Gazans, and also prompted the Israeli Foreign Ministry to take counter action.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday approved the establishment of a task force, which includes General Prosecutor Menachem Mazuz and Chief Military Prosecutor Avihai Mandelblit as well as the legal adviser to the foreign ministry, to counter the Goldstone report.

Netanyahu vowed that no Israeli soldier or officer would be brought before a commission of inquiry, but Israeli action appears too little and too late.

Gabriela Shalev, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, warned on Wednesday that the damage caused to Israel abroad would not be eliminated even if Israel carries out an independent inquiry into the war as advised to by the international community.

“There are no legal questions here and we shouldn’t be deluding ourselves that the report will disappear if we launch a probe,” said Shalev during a discussion held at the Israel Democracy Institute.

“We are seeing a murky wave against the State of Israel the likes of which has not been seen in many years,” she added.

Dr. Samir Awad from Birzeit University near Ramallah says even if Israel follows the advice of its allies and conducts an inquiry into the Gaza war to minimize international criticism, Israel’s reputation has irreversibly worsened.

“The only slightly possible way to lessen damage to Israel’s reputation would be for Israel to renew real and meaningful peace negotiations with the Palestinians, and even then I don’t think that would successfully counter the credibility of the Goldstone report,” Awad told IPS.

“The damage has been done,” agrees Professor Moshe Maoz from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. “The news is all over the world. Even if Israel comes up with a credible counter-report and independent inquiry, all this will do is reduce the fallout,” Maoz told IPS.

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