David vs. Goliath in The Hague: The Palestinian Suing Gantz for War Crimes

The Gaza-born Dutch citizen, who submitted a civil suit against Benny Gantz and Amir Eshel for the death of six family members in 2014, invoked the biblical story before the court himself

Benny Gantz and Amir Eshel, 2012.
IDF Spokesperson's Unit

David stood and flung his words. Goliath (played here by Benny Gantz) was not at the scene, making do with a team of two Dutch lawyers (backed up by legal opinions from three additional lawyers). That too happened on September 17, Election Day in Israel, but in a district court in The Hague, Netherlands. Ismail Ziada, a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip and a naturalized Dutch citizen, was permitted to submit a statement, not as a lawyer but as a person born in 1975 into the Israeli occupation. It was Ziada who invoked the biblical story of David and Goliath to describe his life and his lawsuit against the former chief of staff and the former Israel Air Force commander Amir Eshel.

Three Dutch judges heard arguments for and against the court’s jurisdiction to hear a civil suit for damages against the man who hopes to replace Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister. They heard arguments as to why killing civilians in an airstrike targeting their homes is a war crime on which the Dutch court is authorized to rule, and also arguments to the contrary.

Among other things, they heard that Palestinians seeking to sue the Israeli army for killing their children, women and old people have access to Israeli courts. That is, that’s the fairy tale that Goliath’s counsel tried to sell the judges.

The ruins of the family home after an airstrike in 2014.
Courtesy of the Ziada family
Haaretz Weekly Ep. 41Haaretz

Goliath’s representatives also argued that the senior Israeli officials have immunity from prosecution because they were acting in the service of their country, and that taking them to court compromises Israel’s sovereignty. They hinted at diplomatic complications that might arise if the Dutch court agreed to hear the suit against the two retired generals, and they also argued that the suit was part of an anti-Israeli campaign. In their motion to dismiss the case they also ask that 15,000 euros be paid to Gantz and Eshel in court costs.

After a full day of deliberations, from 9:30 A.M. to 4:30 P.M., the judges announced that their next open hearing on the case will be in January 2020. They will deliver their ruling as to whether the Dutch court has jurisdiction to hear a civil suit over the killing, on January 20, 2014, of Muftia Ziada, 70, born in the village of Faluja and a refugee living in the Bureij refugee camp, her sons Jamil, Omar and Yousif, her grandson Shaban and her daughter-in-law Bayan.

Henk Zanoli
Courtesy of the Ziada family

Ziada told the judges that two Dutch jurists had worked hard to persuade him to file the suit: his wife, the diplomat Angélique Eijpe, and her great-uncle, Henk Zanoli. Zanoli was awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem because he, together with his mother, saved a Jewish boy during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. In 2014 he returned his medal to Yad Vashem to protest the killing of Ziada’s family. As a result, the family was spared the international oblivion and anonymity that surrounds the hundreds of other Palestinian families that Israel erased when it bombed and shelled their homes in the refugee camps and the cities while they ate dinner and while they slept in their beds at night or gathered in the afternoon in the coolest room.

“While my wife and her great-uncle ... [have] faith in legal recourse in the Netherlands, I had a different lived experience concerning the application and the merits of law, Ziada told the court. Meaning: The life of any Palestinian prove to him or her every minute that he and she cannot expect justice from the Israeli legal system.

“2014 was not the first time I was impacted by Israeli army actions. I was shot with live ammunition in the leg. I was shot at very close range with a rubber coated metal bullet in the head. I witnessed another boy being shot in the head next to me, dying on the spot. I was beaten up severely by a group of Israeli soldiers. All this happened before I reached the age of 15. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of the experiences I personally lived through for which no one was ever held accountable and for which recourse to any kind of justice was beyond imagination. ... While the wound created by what happened will never completely heal I sometimes wonder if I’m not continuously scratching its surface. Not a day goes by without us speaking or dealing with something connected to this judicial process.”

Shaban Ziada.
Courtesy of the Ziada family

Ziada is seeking 600,000 euros in damages. For him, the suit is a matter of principle. If he wins the suit and is awarded damages, he will donate the money to Palestinian children and civilian victims of other wars, he said. But he asked the judges to at least exempt him and his family from paying court costs in the event their suit is dismissed. Israel’s Justice Ministry is paying for Gantz and Eshel’s defense, Ziada reminded the court, while his family relies on donations and is already in financial straits. Ziada said that requiring him to pay the defendants’ court costs would deter others from seeking justice in the courts. Even worse, it would add insult to injury if the victims’ family is ordered to pay compensation to a state that has acknowledged its responsibility for killing his relatives.