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Oakland man to sue for injury in Israel protest

Bob Egelko | The San Francisco Chronicle

14 September 2009

An Oakland man who was seriously wounded by a tear gas projectile fired by Israeli police during a West Bank protest will file suit despite a military report concluding that he was engaged in an “act of war,” his lawyers said Sunday.

The case of Tristan Anderson, who remains hospitalized with brain damage and a fractured skull six months after he was injured, may test Israel’s efforts to shield itself from lawsuits for harm it causes during wartime, said attorney Michael Sfard.

Anderson’s lawyers said Israel’s Ministry of Defense has told them the demonstrators threw stones and other objects at police, who acted in self-defense.

The Ministry of Defense, Sfard said in an e-mail message, “is trying to apply the (act of war) doctrine to every (case of) damage caused in the occupied Palestinian territories by Israeli forces.”

Anderson, 38, was among a group of about 400 Palestinian and international demonstrators who gathered March 13 in the town of Naalin, near the wall Israel is building along its border to keep Palestinians out.

The wall cuts off parts of the West Bank, including a portion of Naalin, and is the site of frequent protests.

Anderson was struck in the head by a tear gas canister fired from about 65 yards away by a border police officer, according to some fellow demonstrators. He had brain surgery at Tel Hashomer hospital in Tel Aviv and is no longer in critical condition, but is blind in his right eye, friends say.

His parents, Nancy and Michael Anderson of Grass Valley (Nevada County), report that he has regained consciousness and they are optimistic about his recovery, said Lea Tsemel, an Israeli civil rights lawyer who represents the family.

However, she said she believes Tristan Anderson will be permanently disabled.

Before going to Israel, Anderson was one of the tree-sitters who until last September occupied a grove next to UC Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium in an unsuccessful bid to stop the university from clearing the trees to make room for an athletic center.

This summer, Anderson’s lawyers received a letter from Israel’s Ministry of Defense saying its preliminary investigation had cleared government forces of wrongdoing.

“The border police force was attacked massively by about 400 demonstrators who threw blocks, stones and gas rockets,” the letter said, according to Tsemel’s translation. “The police sincerely feared that they would be hurt. … In these circumstances, we are talking about an act of war. Accordingly, the state is not responsible for any damages.”

Tsemel said numerous witnesses contradict the ministry’s report.

“He was demonstrating. He didn’t have any weapon. He was a peacenik. … Nothing was endangering the soldiers,” the attorney said in a telephone interview from her home in Israel.

While some demonstrators have thrown stones at soldiers, Tsemel said, there was no evidence of any violent activity by Anderson.

Sfard, who also represents Anderson, said the Ministry of Defense was trying to extend the “act of war” defense from armed conflicts to police responses against civilian demonstrators.

Tsemel said Anderson and his family would file suit shortly in either Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. In addition to compensation, she said, “we want the army to investigate the event and bring to trial the border police person who shot at him and those who gave him the orders.”