A recent Jerusalem Magistrate's Court verdict indicates that settlers may fire in the air to repel unarmed Palestinians, a ruling that a Palestinian rights advocate called a dangerous precedent.

Magistrate's Court Judge Hagit Kalmanovitch ruled last month that Abraham Hofi, of the settlement of Halamish, was not guilty of issuing threats or mishandling a weapon when he fired in the air from his father's balcony on May 6, 2005, after observing three Palestinians shepherding a herd some 100 meters from the settlement fence.

The Palestinians, two minors and an adult, testified that Hofi fired at them and that one bullet struck close to the herd. When the Palestinians remained in the area, Hofi and several other settlers went out to confront them.

Kalmanovitch said in her February ruling that she did not believe Hofi sought to harm the Palestinians, adding that Hofi's conduct shows he wasn't afraid for his life and didn't believe the Palestinians to be terrorists.

"Firing in the air, when done by a trained individual, is a proportionate and reasonable response, and we cannot rule that it was rash or negligent," the judge wrote. "How else could the accused respond in this situation? Did he need to call the security forces and wait for an unspecified time for them to show up, if at all?"

The indictment states that the two Palestinian minors were uprooting saplings planted in barrels at the site. The Palestinians said they owned the plot of land and the settlers had been trying to take it over, while Hofi presented the court with documents that said he was licensed by Israeli authorities to work the land.

Michael Sfard, legal adviser to Yesh Din, a Palestinian rights group that collected the testimony from the Palestinians involved in the case, said the verdict set a dangerous precedent.

"It invites civilians to use firearms in non-threatening situations, when the right thing to do is to call the authorities," he said.