Targeted neighborhoods, pt 1: Israel and al-Daraj

By Michelle Chen Jan 16, 2009

If there were ever such a thing as an opportunely timed war crimes case, the Center for Constitutional Rights scored a slam dunk today. The human rights law firm argued Matar v. Dichter before an appeals court in downtown Manhattan. The lawsuit, originally brought in December 2005 and then dismissed by a lower court, accuses Avi Dichter, former top Israeli security official, of orchestrating a notorious 2002 attack in Gaza City that killed several children and wounded scores of civilians. The “targeted assassination,” according to court documents, involved a massive bomb dropped around midnight on a building housing alleged Hamas leader, Saleh Mustafa Shehadeh, and his family, whch destroyed a large swath of Gaza City’s al-Daraj neighborhood. Though the bombing long predates the current carnage in Gaza, the call for accountability resonates with the growing protests around the globe against Israel’s brutal campaign. While the CCR pressed its case against a symbol of Israel’s long history of attacking civilians, a leading United Nations human rights official is pushing for an international investigation into whether Israel’s latest assault on Gaza amounts to war crimes. “As attacks continue on Gaza, leaving more than a thousand civilians dead and even more injured, the significance of accountability for direct and indiscriminate attacks against civilians is especially critical,” said CCR attorney Maria Lahood said in statement today. CCR points to international human rights law, as well as the Alien Tort Statute—an obscure eighteenth-century law that allows non-citizens to sue in the US for certain violations—and the Torture Victim Protection Act, which provides legal recourse for “torture and extrajudicial killings carried out under the authority of a foreign nation.” A district court previously ruled that Dichter enjoyed protection under the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act. In addition, the court said the heated political context surrounding the case made it an inappropriate subject for the court to consider, citing “the potential impact of this litigation on the Middle East’s delicate diplomacy”—echoing the Israeli government’s defense of Dichter. The US government contends that allowing the court to review Matar could "give rise to serious diplomatic tensions.” CCR sees no evidence of what political problems might arise “if ‘high-ranking’ foreign officials could be held liable for extrajudicial killings and war crimes.” The elusive answer to that question, of course, also brushes against the issue of accountability for our own officials, as seen in CCR’s efforts to prosecute Bush administration higher-ups for human rights violations related to the so-called war on terror. The Dichter litigation certainly does hit on political questions, but the global subtext is the politicization of the rule of law that drives the worst forms of impunity.