Wheels of Justice Grinding Reason

The proof of Israel's almost absolute control over the Palestinians' fate is not to be sought only in the Likud central committee, in the air and armed forces, and in the offices of the civil administration.

The proof of Israel's almost absolute control over the Palestinians' fate is not to be sought only in the Likud central committee, in the air and armed forces, and in the offices of the civil administration. It can also be found in Israel's civil courts, in what appears to be a legal, professional, unbiased judiciary procedure.

Israeli citizens and companies have filed dozens of damage suits against the PA in the last four years - some for terrorist attacks, and some for economic damage (loss of income from tourism or car theft).

The total sum of suits is about NIS 6 billon. The cases are still being heard in court and are far from verdicts. The suits in cases of terror attacks are in sums that are dozens of times higher than is customary in court rulings on work accidents, manslaughter or murder. Plaintiffs have sued for NIS 80 million in various terror cases compared to NIS 1 million at most that is ruled in damage suits for loss of life.

Damage suits break down the material damage incurred by death, anguish, lost years. Then the sums paid by National Insurance is deducted from that. It is hard to absorb this kind of calculation, but apparently a price list for a human life exists.

Is a human life lost in a "mere" work accident or murder worth less than a life lost in a terror attack? Why is one worth half a million shekels and the other 50 million? Even if the judges rule in favor of the plaintiffs, Attorney Yossi Arnon, who represents the PA, finds it hard to believe they could deviate from the accepted price list.

But in the meantime, the judiciary system has hastened to seize PA funds, which Israel collects in the form of customs and taxes for services and merchandise, preventing them from reaching the Palestinian treasury.

Numerous judges have agreed to plaintiffs' requests to confiscate some of the sums temporarily. In cases when the plaintiffs sued for NIS 80 million, the court confiscated 36 million.

Tel Aviv District Court Judge Altuvia Magen, who revoked one of the confiscation orders, ruled about two months ago that there was no evidence for the sum sued for in damages or compensation in a case he was handling. Meanwhile, NIS 1 billion in confiscated PA funds have accumulated in Israel's coffers.

The missing billion shekels is causing a chain effect of damages - delay in paying the wages to public sector workers, in paying bank debts, in interest payments and in water and electricity payments. It is also harming administrative reform, one of whose mainstays was establishing a pension fund for public sector workers.

One of the PA's main problems is a surplus of employees in the civil and security public sector. This surplus was a substitute for a welfare system, but also prevented the advancement of talented people. The payments made today to the pension fund ensure that next year several thousands will retire from the security branches. At present, the delay in transferring payments to the fund is leading to a freeze in the reform plan.

In the first two years of the intifada Israel decided, as a punishment, to withhold the payments to the PA. American pressure, as part of the road map, led to the resumption of the fund transfers. In the past year the State Prosecution has stated several times in declarations to the courts that the political and public interest requires transferring the funds to the PA.

What power, then, is in the hands of Israeli judges who decide on confiscations? Greater power than that of the American administration, of the World Monetary Fund, of the European Union states. Their representatives are laboring alongside Palestinian treasurer Salam Fayyad on weaving every detail in the reform in the PA's ministries, and then are stuck because of "the independence of the Israeli judiciary."

And is judiciary authority indeed independent? The seizure injunctions, which in fact dictate preventing wage payments, appear to be fitting in nicely with the air of collective vindictiveness prevailing here since September, 2000.

In this atmosphere, the Palestinians are held to blame for everything - for the failure of the Camp David summit, for the tension and escalation following Ariel Sharon's visit to Temple Mount, for the killing of their citizens, for the killing of our citizens.

If it it permissible to operate tanks and airplanes in ever escalating punishment campaigns, why should we ignore the power of financial pressures? Last week Attorney General Menachem Mazuz presented an urgent request for one of the district courts to cancel the confiscation order it had issued - in an economic damages suit.

The numerous telephone calls from the United States must finally have had an effect. But the grinding of the wheels of justice and reason here are slow, compared to the speed in which one million missing shekels can undermine the meager budget of PA ($1.4 billion) and directly infringe on the already low wages of tens of thousands of human beings.