JERUSALEM - Israel's Supreme Court, in a far-reaching decision concerning national security, ruled yesterday that relatives of Palestinians suspected of terrorism can be expelled from their homes and banished to the Gaza Strip if there is compelling evidence that the relatives have helped with terror acts.
The Supreme Court, in a lengthy review by the nine-member panel, addressed what has been one of the most contentious measures undertaken by Israel in its effort to battle Palestinian attacks: the forced transfer of relatives of suspected militants from the West Bank to Gaza.
The panel, in a unanimous decision, found that two of the three Palestinians targeted for eviction by the Israeli army - a brother and a sister of Ali Ajouri, a West Bank militant who was recently killed by the army - were a danger to society and could be expelled.
The court deemed credible secret evidence - not detailed in court - that, in some cases, Kifah Ajouri, 39, had acted as a lookout for his brother, a member of the militant Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and that his sister Intisar Ajouri, 34, had stitched together at least one explosive belt for a terror attack.
A third man, Abdel Nasser Asidi, the brother of a suspected Hamas militant, was found to have had little contact with his brother, and the court deemed insufficient the evidence that he had helped with any attack.
Palestinian officials and human-rights activists denounced the overall ruling.
The court said the two Ajouris could be sent to Gaza for two years. Under military law, their cases will be reviewed every six months.
The decision gave legal backing to a tactic that the army and the Israeli government, in the past month, have deemed necessary to deter attacks in a cycle of violence that began in September 2000.
Israeli Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit said the decision "proves that the justices of the court are in tune with the Israeli people."
"This decision runs in the same line as previous decisions made by this court regarding the war against terror, and it strengthens the [Israeli army] and the security forces in this battle," Sheetrit said.
The court, however, specifically disallowed the use of expulsion as a general deterrent. The order underscores that the army needs to review each proposed expulsion separately and find evidence, specific to each person, of ties to terror acts.
"An innocent relative who does not present a danger" cannot be expelled, according to the court order, "even if it is proved that [transfer] may deter others from carrying out terrorist acts."
Chief Justice Aharon Barak wrote that the court was weighing security concerns and human rights amid a "difficult period ... [caused by the] killing and destruction perpetrated by terrorists."
"The State is doing all that it can in order to protect its citizens," Barak wrote. He added later that: "We are doing all we can to balance properly between human rights and the security of the area. In this balance, human rights cannot receive complete protection, as if there were no terror, and state security cannot receive complete protection, as if there were no human rights."
Palestinian officials denounced the ruling. Nabil Shaath, an adviser to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from Gaza City, said yesterday morning that the judicial ruling was an extension of the political policy of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and questioned the court system's integrity.
Christine Spolar is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.