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The Knesset yesterday approved a bill in first reading that exempts the state from responsibility for most damages suffered by Palestinians during and after the intifada. The bill, dubbed Intifada Law II, is meant to circumvent a High Court of Justice ruling that unanimously overturned a similar law two years ago.

The original Intifada Law, enacted in 2002 as an amendment to the Torts Law, gave the state immunity against compensation suits by Palestinians for personal injury or property damage incurred during Israeli operations in the territories since September 2000. Nine human rights organizations petitioned the High Court of Justice against the law, and on February 13, 2006, a panel of nine justices overturned the legislation.

The justices ruled that the law contradicted the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom, because it undermined the rights to life, dignity, property and freedom. "Not all ends justify the means," wrote then Supreme Court president Aharon Barak in his ruling.

Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann argued a year ago that the High Court should not have overturned the law, saying this decision had exposed Israel to some 3,000 lawsuits. Yesterday, he noted that the intifada suits are expected to cost hundreds of millions of shekels.

"The current legislation is minimalist," Friedmann said. "A war was conducted here. Damages that are inflicted during wars need to be settled between governments."

The main difference between the original Intifada Law and the bill that Friedmann brought before the plenum yesterday is that the original law exempted the state from paying compensation even if the damages were not incurred during combat operations, while the new bill does not. Instead, however, it greatly expands the definition of combat operations. "An operation aimed at preventing terrorism, hostile acts or uprisings will also be viewed as a combat operation," it states.

In every suit for damages, the bill continues, the court will first have to determine whether the state is exempt from responsibility because the damages were incurred during combat operations. If the court concludes that the state is not exempt, the damages will be set in accordance with the standard of living in the area where the plaintiff resides.

Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit (Kadima), who was justice minister when the first Intifada Law passed, strongly supported Friedmann's proposal yesterday. Aside from Israel, he told the plenum, "there is no country in the world that pays damages to the other side in an armed conflict."

Likud faction head MK Gideon Sa'ar also supported Friedmann's stance, saying: "They want Israel to be the only country in the world that is an ATM for terrorism aimed at its citizens."

MK Yossi Beilin (Meretz), in contrast, described the bill as "suffering from the banality of evil. This is an evil and unnecessary law. It is shameful and a stain on our lawbooks. It will cause us terrible damage."

Meretz faction head MK Zahava Gal-On termed the bill discriminatory, adding: "This is an attempt to humiliate the High Court." Hadash Chairman MK Mohammed Barakeh termed the law "brutal." MK Dov Khenin, also from Hadash, described the law as "sending a message of anarchy, in which soldiers of the state of Israel can harm innocents without anyone paying the price for it."

Three organizations that were at the forefront of the legal battle against Intifada Law I - Hamoked (the Center for the Defense of the Individual), Adalah (the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel) and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel - charged that "the new bill is more damaging than the one rejected by the High Court. The bill threatens to bring Israel onto the list of pariah states whose legal system does not offer protection for human rights."