Justice minister’s claim that a High Court ruling enabled terror attack queried

Amir Ohana asserted court prevented demolition of Gaza homes used for cover by killers, but Haaretz reports it was the state that ultimately backed away from the move

Amir Ohana, newly appointed Israeli Justice Minister seen during his swearing in ceremony at the Knesset assembly hall in Jerusalem, on June 12, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Amir Ohana, newly appointed Israeli Justice Minister seen during his swearing in ceremony at the Knesset assembly hall in Jerusalem, on June 12, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

When new Justice Minister Amir Ohana sought to back up his criticism of the High Court of Justice on Wednesday, he gave the example of a 2004 ruling he said had enabled a terror attack that claimed the lives of five Israelis.

But according to a review of his assertions by Haaretz, the ruling in question was never actually given.

In an interview with Channel 12 news, Ohana, insinuating it was not always appropriate to respect High Court rulings, said the court had refused to allow the military to destroy several Palestinian buildings along the Kissufim route in the Gaza Strip. Terrorists then used the building as cover to murder a pregnant Israeli, Tali Hatuel, and her four daughters.

But according to Haaretz’s inquiry, the court never gave a ruling on the matter. Rather, when the military announced plans to demolish the building in 2002, two years before the attack, Palestinian residents filed a petition with the High Court, and the court issued a temporary injunction delaying demolition and awaiting the state’s response.

However, state legal officials themselves had reservations about the demolition, and during internal deliberations then-attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein expressed doubts about the necessity of the action.

Hearings on the matter did not move forward and the state did not push the issue.

Ohana did not respond to Haaretz’s request for comment.

Asked during the interview whether, in certain situations, High Court decisions should not be upheld, Ohana replied that “The ultimate consideration has to be preserving citizens’ lives, yes.”

Likud MK Amir Ohana delivers his first speech as justice minister at a conference of the Israel Bar Association, in Jerusalem, on June 10, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

In a harsh retort, Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut accused Ohana of leading the country to “anarchy” with his suggestions.

“I take an extremely dim view of a justice minister in the State of Israel, on the day he is sworn in, choosing to share with us an unprecedented and irresponsible judicial worldview according to which not all rulings handed out by courts should be honored,” Hayut declared.

“In other words, any litigant can from now on — with the justice minister’s blessing — choose which verdict needs to be obeyed and which does not,” she added. “With that worldview, the path to anarchy, in which everyone does what they feel like, is short.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit joined the criticism, stressing that obeying court decisions is not a matter of choice.

And even Netanyahu said it was incumbent upon all Israelis to obey court verdicts. “Court decisions are binding upon everyone,” he tweeted.

In response, Ohana on Wednesday evening clarified that he would respect High Court rulings.

Ohana, who was appointed last week by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to head the ministry until the September elections, has been outspoken in his criticism of the courts.

“I gave an example of an extreme case that happened in reality,” said Ohana. “We are not talking about regular [court] decisions, and we are not talking about decisions that I happen to disagree with. I was talking about the most extreme instances, where a black flag flies over them, and they could cost lives.”

“But even the obvious has to be said: We need to respect the decisions of the courts. This is what I have always done and this is what I believe,” he said. “Israel is a democracy that upholds the rule of law and it will stay that way.”

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut speaks at the Annual International Conference of the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv, January 29, 2019. (Flash90)

But his vote of confidence in the courts did not extend to the State Prosecutor’s Office, warning that he feared they might plan to “frame him.”

“I am mentally prepared for this. I hope it won’t happen, I believe it won’t happen, but I’m preparing for the possibility,” he said.

Mandelblit also rebuffed that accusation, saying: “For law enforcement authorities and the state prosecution — headed by the attorney general and the state attorney — there are only practical and professional considerations,” he declared. “The decisions are made only on the basis of evidence and the provisions of the law, and not, God forbid, any extraneous considerations.”

Earlier in the week, Ohana used his maiden speech as minister to declare that Israel’s justice system was “the least democratic” of the country’s three branches of government, and vowed to seek changes he believed would lead to a more balanced judiciary.

In a speech at an event of the Israel Bar Association, his first since taking office last week, Ohana said, “Anyone who wants a strong justice system, anyone who wants what is best for the justice system — must be prepared to criticize it, and criticism also means change.”

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