Top Israeli Justices Face War Crimes Suit in Chile for Authorizing West Bank Wall

Lawsuit by Palestinians from Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, is based on precedent of Nuremberg trials and receives support from local lawmakers, sources tell Haaretz.

Israel's separation barrier near the West Bank town of Beit Jala, July 27, 2016.
Emil Salman

A war crimes suit was filed in Chile against three Israeli Supreme Court justices for authorizing the construction of the West Bank separation barrier in the Bethlehem area, Palestinian sources involved in the lawsuit told Haaretz.

The lawsuit, which also alleges crimes against humanity, was filed in Santiago on Monday and was joined by a number of Chilean lawmakers from left, right and centrist parties.

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The claimants are six landowners from the Beit Jala in the West Bank, whose lands will be separated from the village as a result of the barrier's construction. Five of the plaintiffs are Chilean nationals residing in the country and the sixth is a Palestinian that lives in Beit Jala.

The suit was filed against former chief Justice Asher Grunis, and Justices Neal Hendel and Uzi Vogelman. The three presided over a petition lodged by Beit Jala residents and rejected an alternative route for the barrier fence suggested by the Council for Peace and Security, an Israeli group comprised of retired military experts. On April 2, 2015, the court ruled that the alternative route – which did not cut off the villagers from their lands – failed to fulfill the wall's security role in the way the Defense Ministry's route did.

Asher Grunis, Neal Hendel and Uzi Vogelman.
Shaul Golan, David Bachar, Tomer Appelbaum

Chile is a signatory on the 2012 Rome Statute, and has since included the principle of universal jurisdiction in its constitution, giving the county's judiciary the authority to prosecute any person for international crimes, regardless of their nationality or where the crime took place.

The decision to prosecute judges was based on the precedent set by the Nuremberg trials, which permitted judges to be convicted for their role in cooperating with crimes against humanity and war crimes, a member of the legal team that prepared the suit told Haaretz.

The suit stipulates that as the investigation into the claims unfolds, it could be decided to name additional people responsible for the wall's erection, the source added. The justices who eventually authorized the wall's route were Hendel, Zvi Zylbertal and Miriam Naor – Grunis' successor as chief justice.

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The lawyer who filed the suit is Nicholas Paves, a former Chilean governor. Five Chilean judges have been appointed to investigate the suit, Jorge Abollado Vivanco, Sandra Rojas Gonzalez, Carlos Gutierrez Moya, Judith Guzman Martinez and Liliana Ledesma Miranda. They have 15 days to decide how to proceed, the source said. The investigation could include summoning the Israeli judges for questioning, or, possibly, interrogating them in Israel.

Chile is home to a large and established Palestinian community, founded by a group who left the area at the beginning of the 20th century. The majority of them originate from Beit Jala.

Chile voted in favor of recognizing Palestine in the UN as a non-member state and the Palestinian envoy to Santiago has the standing of an official ambassador.

A Palestinian involved in the suit told Haaretz that these factors, as well as Chile's universal jurisprudence, played a key role in the decision to file the suit in Chile. He further noted that the public in Chile is attuned to issues of human rights and crimes against humanity due to its past as a military dictatorship under the regime of Augusto Pinochet.