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Israeli court says Palestinians can sue

Some can seek damages over military actions

Palestinians displayed an image of the slain sons of an intelligence official at a rally yesterday in Gaza. (Mohammed Salem/REUTERS)

JERUSALEM -- Israel's high court ruled yesterday that Palestinians have the right to sue the Israeli military for damages caused by some of its operations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, overturning parts of a law that had given the security forces broad immunity to such claims.

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Meanwhile, in Gaza, gunfire broke out between the armed wings of the Fatah and Hamas movements in the city of Khan Younis a day after the killing of three children of a senior Palestinian intelligence officer.

Four men affiliated with Fatah were injured in the shooting, which may have occurred mistakenly in the hours after Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas deployed security forces under his control across the territory to ensure calm.

The Israeli court's unanimous decision will allow hundreds of private Palestinian lawsuits to proceed in the coming months. The ruling nullifies the 2005 "civil wrongs law" that protected the military from damage claims in conflict zones, a designation that covered nearly all of the occupied territories during the Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000.

The traditionally activist high court is often at odds with Israel's parliament, which since the uprising began has been largely controlled by hawkish parties.

The ruling stipulated that claims would be considered only if the damages were sustained in operations that were not strictly military in nature. Hassan Jabareen, director of Adalah, one of the nine human-rights groups that petitioned the court to overturn the law, said eligible cases would include claims of theft, looting, shootings, and operations found to be illegal under Israeli law.

The court also left in place a provision of the law that excluded any "citizen of an enemy state" or "member of a terrorist organization" from receiving compensation. The court said the petitioners did not bring sufficient evidence to support their argument that such plaintiffs were entitled to damages, leaving the provision open to a future legal challenge.

"One of the major points we were making in this case was that you cannot ensure human rights without allowing suits for damages," said Sarit Michaeli, of the Israeli human-rights group B'Tselem, one of the groups that challenged the law.

Michaeli said that, although the ruling covered "only a portion of those affected" by Israel's military operations, the decision was "still an important one."

Hawkish lawmakers criticized the ruling and requested a delay in its implementation to draft new legislation with the same intent that would survive legal scrutiny. The ruling takes immediate effect and applies retroactively to claims filed since September 2000.

Michael Eitan, a Likud legislator, told reporters the decision threatens "the ability of the security services to operate effectively."

In Gaza, questions remained about the children's shooting, which has brought Hamas and Fatah to the brink of armed confrontation after months of relative calm between them. The three boys were the only sons of Baha Balousheh, an intelligence official with Abbas's Fatah movement.

Some Fatah officials continued suggesting yesterday that Hamas, the rival Islamic movement in charge of the Palestinian Authority, bore responsibility for the shooting. Hamas officials have condemned the attack and denied any role in carrying it out.

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