Cast Lead - AP - January 5, 2009
In this Monday, Jan. 5, 2009 file photo, Palestinians carry the bodies of three toddlers who according to Palestinian medical sources were killed in an Israeli strike. Photo by AP
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Dozens of Palestinians who lost relatives in an Israeli military offensive in Gaza three years ago have been forced to put their compensation claims on hold, saying Israel has placed near-impossible barriers to proceeding with their cases.

Israeli restrictions prevent Gazans from entering Israel to testify, undergo medical exams or meet with their lawyers. But the biggest obstacle, the victims say, are steep court fees that can reach tens of thousands of dollars.

"The victim must pay for justice," said Gaza resident Mohammed Abdel-Dayim, whose son and three nephews were killed during a military assault. "Israel should be ashamed."

Israel says the fees prevent frivolous lawsuits. They say they are imposed on many foreigners - not just Palestinians - because they don't have local assets that the state could seize to cover legal fees and other court costs.

But Palestinians say the costs are part of a strategy to protect Israeli soldiers. If the fees aren't reduced, lawyers representing Palestinians say they will have to drop most cases.

Abdel-Dayim is suing Israel over the deaths of four relatives: His son was a volunteer medic who died when Israeli tank fire struck the ambulance he was driving. Three nephews were killed the next day when Israeli shelling struck a mourning tent where the family was grieving.

An Israeli court asked Abdel-Dayim to post 22,000 dollars in court fees, or just over 5,000 dollars per victim. His annual income is under 6,000 dollars.

About 1,000 Gazans have prepared cases seeking compensation, mostly alleging wrongful deaths during Israel's offensive in the territory, according to their lawyers.

Some 1,400 Gazans were killed during the three-week Israeli operation, including hundreds of civilians. Israel launched the offensive in December 2008 in response to heavy Palestinian rocket fire. Thirteen Israelis also died in the fighting.

Israel says Gaza's Hamas rulers are responsible for the civilian casualties, claiming the militant group endangered civilians by firing rockets from near schools and residential areas.

In civil suits in Israel, the losing party must pay legal fees and court costs of the winning side. Because foreign nationals could bolt without paying, Israeli courts often demand a security deposit. The money is returned to plaintiffs who win their cases. The sum of the guarantee is left to individual judges.

For example, in July, Judge Nehama Munitz of the District Court in the northern city of Nazareth demanded a 5,500 dollars deposit from each of 42 Gazan plaintiffs in a case involving the bombing of the Abdel-Dayim mourning tent, according to legal documents. Mohammed Abdel-Dayim's share was 22,000 dollars.

She said the fees are justified by the expensive and time-consuming investigative process, and dismissed claims of a financial barrier.

"The plaintiffs did not prove that they are unable to afford the expense of the court guarantee, and/or did not claim this in their brief," she wrote in a court document obtained by The Associated Press.

Tameem Younis, a lawyer representing the families, is now appealing. If the fees aren't reduced, "we will have to cancel the claims," he said.

Iyad Alami of the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights, which takes on many cases, said they have raised money for some of the most important petitions, including a planned case where some two dozen members of the Samouni clan were killed after fleeing to what they thought was a safe house.

Nitzan Eyal, a spokeswoman for Israel's courts system, said the fees are set based on the chances of success.

"The lower the chances of the claim, the higher the justification for charging the plaintiff a court deposit to ensure the legal expenses of the defendant," she said.

Israelis, in contrast, typically don't have to pay up front because the courts can put liens on their properties. Likewise, families of victims from friendly nations often don't pay.

Hussein Abu Hussein, attorney for the American parents of Rachel Corrie, who was killed in Gaza in 2003 when she was run over by a military bulldozer, did not pay a deposit in their civil suit against Israel. He said it was waived because the U.S. and Israel enforce each others' court rulings. Israel and the Palestinians have no such understanding.

Michael Karyanni, a law professor at Israel's Hebrew University, said the legal fees appeared excessive, given the impoverished circumstances of many Gazans. Some 40 percent of Gaza's 1.5 million residents live on less than 2 dollars a day, according to UN figures.

"The Supreme Court has said in one of its judgments that the court needs to be sensitive to the financial abilities of the plaintiff, but I don't think from what I've seen that there is any kind of a serious attempt to have the costs be proportional to the plaintiff's ability," Karyanni said.

Israelis point out the practice of seeking upfront guarantees is also accepted in Europe. In the Netherlands, for instance, plaintiffs must pay 800 euros to 1,400 euros depending on the size of the claim. But the Dutch system lowers the fee to just 71 euros for indigent or low-income plaintiffs.

Karyanni said in Israel, only in rare cases have plaintiffs successfully appealed to reduce the fees. In general, Israel says the system is fair to Palestinians.

"The fact that Palestinians who are not citizens of Israel routinely petition Israeli courts demonstrates more than anything else the stature of our courts," said government spokesman Mark Regev.

In the last two years, Palestinians won about 6 million dollars in damages from the state, according to the Israeli Justice Ministry.

In August, Israel's Defense Minister settled a case related to the Gaza offensive out of court, paying about 137,000 dollars to the family of a mother and daughter who were shot dead while waving white flags.

In the Iraq war, by contrast, Iraqis cannot claim civil damages from the U.S. under a 2008 agreement. In Afghanistan, the U.S. offers compensation to citizens when their property is damaged, but it's unclear whether they can claim damages for deaths or injuries caused by the U.S.-led military alliance.

There are no known cases of Israelis suing in Palestinian Authority courts for damages, said Palestinian spokesman Ghassan Khatib.

There is hardly any reason to test the system that way: Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, an Israeli lawyer who represents victims of Palestinian violence, said some 150 cases against the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority were pending in Israeli courts.

The Palestinian government defends itself in these cases, and so far, there have been no rulings against the authority, Darshan-Leitner said. She said Israelis had also successfully sued Gaza's rulers, the militant Islamic group Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings. But it has been impossible to recover damages.

In other cases, Israelis have turned to U.S. courts, either because of joint American citizenship or under "crimes against humanity" laws. The Palestinian Authority has reached settlements in at least two cases, Darshan-Leitner said.

For most Gazans, just getting to the courtroom is a challenge. Under restrictions imposed in 2002 at the height of violence between Palestinians and Israel, Palestinians have 60 days following an incident to file an initial letter of complaint with the Defense Ministry. After that, they have two years to take those claims to court.

Gazans are allowed into Israel only in rare cases, such as medical emergencies, and the state does not allow video testimony from Gaza, said Israeli attorney Michael Sfard, who frequently represents Palestinians in Israeli courts.

Israelis are also banned from entering Gaza, which means lawyers cannot meet clients and state doctors cannot give certified medical exams to verify claims.

The Israeli Arab advocacy group Adalah has filed a petition to allow Gazans entry permits to Israel for their legal proceedings. A court ruling is expected in the next few months.

"It's impossible to conduct a trial at all under these circumstances," said Sfard.