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The defense establishment is bracing itself for a flood of lawsuits from Palestinian civilians seeking financial compensation over Operation Cast Lead.

Civil suits against the Israel Defense Forces must be filed within two years of the operation that caused damage, which means the deadline is in four months.

Human rights organizations say about 40,000 Palestinian homes in Gaza were destroyed during the fighting in late 2008 and early 2009. Factories, public buildings and farms also sustained extensive damage.

In its response to the Goldstone report on the war, the IDF said civilian homes were destroyed when the army believed Palestinian militants were operating out of the buildings, using them to store weapons or had booby-trapped them.

While the IDF decided in the wake of its investigations not to prosecute soldiers or officers who took part in destructive operations, Palestinian civilians may still file civil damage claims.

A few dozen such suits have been submitted to the courts, but hundreds and perhaps thousands more are expected over the next few months. Palestinians may file for compensation for damage from IDF operations up to two years after the event, as long as they submit notice of intent to sue within 60 days.

Defense and justice ministry officials believe the attorneys handling these claims intentionally delayed filing suits for more than a year and a half and intend to submit them en masse shortly before the two-year deadline expires.

One legal official in the defense establishment said the assumption is that these lawyers are working with European human rights group to "flood" the system with hundreds of claims. The aim, the source said, is to exhaust the State Prosecutor's Office in the hope of obtaining more generous settlements for their clients.

In preparation for submitting claims, Palestinian attorneys and humanitarian organizations in Gaza deposed witnesses and gathered material evidence immediately after the end of Operation Cast Lead.

Officials in the judicial system said they are prepared for a large number of lawsuits from Gazan civilians.

They do not intend to hire additional attorneys to handle the claims, and the plaintiffs will simply have to wait because claims are still being processed from Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, they said.