NEW YORK - A federal judge threw out a war crimes lawsuit on Wednesday against Public Security Minister Avi Dichter on behalf of Palestinians who lost relatives in an Israel Air Force bombing of a Gaza City apartment building.

The lawsuit accused Dichter of "war crimes for his participation" in the decision to drop a one-tonne bomb in a residential area of the Gaza Strip on July 22, 2002.

The target of the bombing was Hamas leader Saleh Shehada, but the strike also killed 14 Palestinian civilians, including nine children, and wounded many others.

At the time of the attack, Dichter was the director of the Shin Bet security service.

"I'm very disappointed," said Maria LaHood, a senior staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, who represented the plaintiffs.

In a ruling issued at U.S. District Court in Manhattan, Judge William Pauley found Dichter could not be sued because he was acting as a government official at the time.

The judge is saying that "a government official is immune for a war crime, for killing people, if a government - in this case the Israelis and also the American government - says so," LaHood said. "It makes the prohibition against war crimes almost meaningless."

The suit was filed under a U.S. statute that allows foreign nationals to sue in U.S. courts for damages caused by actions that violate international law. Dichter also was in the United States when the suit was filed in 2005.

Israel and the U.S. State Department had petitioned the court to grant Dichter's motion to dismiss the lawsuit.