Nazareth – Israel has given itself almost complete immunity from paying compensation in cases where its soldiers have killed, injured or disabled Palestinian civilians, an Israeli human rights group has warned.
In a report released on Wednesday, entitled Getting Off Scot-Free, B’Tselem said that Israel had violated its obligations under international law by denying many thousands of Palestinians redress in Israeli civil courts.
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The report said that changes to Israeli law over the past 15 years meant that Israeli authorities were now almost never liable for awarding compensation, even in non-combat situations. That also included cases where soldiers had engaged in patently criminal behaviour against Palestinians, such as physical assault or looting.
B’Tselem stressed that the report did not deal with the issue of Israel’s responsibility for deaths, injuries and damage to property during “warfare”. International law includes an exemption for compensation, even for civilians, when casualties are the result of hostilities, such as Israel’s repeated large-scale operations in Gaza.
But the group said that Israel had extended the scope of its dispensation to cover routine procedures, especially in the occupied West Bank, where soldiers regularly conduct policing operations, arrest raids and security checks.
As a result, said B’Tselem, thousands of Palestinians had been left not only physically harmed, but with inadequate care and rehabilitation. Their families had often accrued large debts they struggled to pay off.
“Data from Israel’s defence ministry shows that Palestinians have all but stopped filing claims for compensation because they understand it is a futile exercise,” Amit Gilutz, a spokesman for B’Tselem, told Al Jazeera.
He said that there had been a 95 percent drop in Palestinians applying for compensation compared with the number of claims two decades ago.
In the 1990s, before the changes started taking effect, the report observed, thousands of Palestinians filed suits after they were harmed by unlawful gunfire, extreme violence from soldiers, torture during interrogation, destruction of property or delayed blasts from unexploded ordnance.
Today, even in the tiny number of cases where Palestinians have been compensated, they received pitiful amounts compared with the sums awarded 20 years ago.
The report noted that from the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000 until late last year, Israel killed more than 4,850 Palestinians who were not taking part in hostilities, a third of them children. Many thousands more were seriously wounded, while Israel demolished thousands of homes and wrecked large areas of farmland.
But a series of legal amendments now guaranteed “a nearly blanket exemption from the obligation to pay compensation for this harm,” the report concluded. It said that Palestinians were offered “no more than the illusion” of redress, even in cases of damage unrelated to combat.
“Israel now treats compensation as an exceptional act of charity rather than an obligation under international law,” Gilutz said. “That has terrible consequences for injured Palestinians in terms of their ability to seek proper care and their quality of life.”
The Palestinian Authority (PA) covers hospital treatment and the immediate medical bills of Palestinians injured by Israeli actions. But B’Tselem rejected claims made by Israel that the PA should also issue compensation.
The report said that Israel’s continuing belligerent occupation, and the PA’s lack of control over territory, borders and resources, made Israel responsible for helping the victims’ families.
Last year, B’Tselem issued a report accusing the Israeli military prosecution system of “whitewashing” the army’s crimes by failing to seriously investigate Israeli soldiers’ actions.
The group said that Israel’s immunity from paying compensation – combined with its soldiers’ legal impunity for committing crimes – removed any pressure on Israeli forces to behave carefully when dealing with the civilian Palestinian population in the occupied territories. “The road to harsh violations of human rights lies wide open,” it warned.
B’Tselem noted that the Jerusalem district court rejected a damages claim last month from the family of Mustafa al-Tamimi, who was killed during a demonstration in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh in late 2011, when a soldier fired a tear gas canister directly at him. Three years ago, military prosecutors closed an investigation into the shooting without taking action.
The Jerusalem judge ruled that Tamimi had died during “warfare activity” and ordered the family to pay some $16,000 to cover the state’s costs.
No amount of money is going to give me back the legs that the Israeli soldiers took from me.
Both the Israeli military and the defence ministry were unavailable to respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
The report includes testimonies from Palestinian civilians, including children, severely injured by Israeli soldiers. The families often have to foot large medical bills, shoulder round-the-clock care for victims, and pay to make alterations to their homes to cope with disabilities.
The testimonies highlighted that in many cases, injuries were caused by Israeli soldiers shooting recklessly or maliciously into civilian areas during routine policing operations.
Basmah Mansur, 48, a mother of 10, has been severely disabled for the past 13 years, after she was shot in the face in her home in Nablus, in the occupied West Bank. Israeli soldiers fired through her window as she was making lunch for her children, during a raid to arrest her husband.
She was paralysed for many months. Today, more than a decade on, she can move and talk only with difficulty, and suffers severe headaches from the bullet fragments lodged in her head.
“I can’t shower independently or change clothes. I can’t even put on my head scarf alone. Nothing in my body works properly – not my legs, my hands, my mouth, or my eyes,” she said.
She had to end physiotherapy many years ago after the PA stopped paying for it, and Israel’s draconian rules made her ineligible for help. For many years, she was left to cope largely on her own with young children.
“All I could do was watch them until one of my neighbours came and made them breakfast, fed me, and helped with the chores,” she said. “That’s how it’s been ever since. If one of the neighbours doesn’t come by, we’re stuck without food until the girls get home from school.”
Now that her children are older, they do most of the housework, including two married daughters who bathe and dress her each day.
“The soldiers ruined my life and turned it into a living hell,” Mansur said. “I feel like there’s a fire burning inside me when I see that my children need me and I can’t help them and support them.”
Ata Sabah, 16, from Al Jalazoun refugee camp, near Ramallah in the West Bank, has been paralysed from the waist down since he was shot in the stomach by soldiers near his school at the age of 12.
He has a wheelchair donated by a German company, but the family has struggled to cover other bills. Sabah needs a taxi each day to take him to a school that can cope with his mobility problems. An elevator has had to be installed in the family’s home at a cost of $10,500, and medication Sabah will need for the rest of his life sets the family back $260 a month.
Sabah told Al Jazeera that his circumstances had improved only thanks to donations from extended family, friends and neighbours.
“I want one day to be a lawyer who can fight to bring justice to the victims of crimes like the one that was done to me,” he said, noting that while compensation would relieve the constant financial strain on the family, “no amount of money is going to give me back the legs that the Israeli soldiers took from me”.
The sums needed by families such as Sabbah’s are considered astronomical in communities where unemployment is rampant and average salaries can be as low as $250 a month.
“These families often end up depending on the support and charity of neighbours,” Iyad Hadad, a field researcher for B’Tselem, told Al Jazeera. “Life becomes a permanent struggle for them.”
The PA can rarely afford to help the families, beyond immediate medical costs. The largely aid-dependent PA is reported to be in dire financial trouble, as international assistance dries up.
Last year, Rami Hamdallah, the Palestinian prime minister, said that aid had dropped by 70 percent over the preceding four years. The PA’s development budget, which funds education and health, had suffered as a result.
The problem was further exacerbated in late January, when US President Donald Trump’s new administration froze more than $220m in aid to the PA approved by his predecessor, Barack Obama. The funds included $25m to support Palestinian healthcare services.
Musab Sarhaneh, another of the victims documented by B’Tselem, was six when he was hit in the face four years ago by a bullet fired by Israeli soldiers. At the time he was walking with his mother, Hiyam, through Fawwar refugee camp, near Hebron. He lost his right eye and needs an expensive implant that has to be changed every two years.
Musab’s poor eyesight has left him vulnerable in the camp, Hiyam said. “In the past few weeks he stumbled and fell twice while he was outside in the dark. He broke his right arm and it’s in a cast … My son was robbed of a happy childhood and I was robbed as a mother.”