Israel's High Court Asked to Overturn Boycott Law

An Israeli peace group has petitioned the country's Supreme Court to overturn a controversial new law banning boycotts of West Bank settlements, as international human rights groups and Israel's own attorney general joined a growing chorus of the legislation's critics.

The Gush Shalom peace group, which says it began calling for a boycott of settlement products back in the 1990s, alleged that the new law violates basic democratic principles.

"The parliamentary majority seeks, through the Boycott Law as by other pieces of legislation, to silence any criticism of government policy in general and of government policy in the occupied territories in particular," the statement said.

The state has 60 days to respond to the suit, at which time the court will decide how to proceed.

The law, approved Monday in a vote that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other leading officials did not attend, allows settlers or settlement-based businesses to sue Israelis who promote settlement boycotts. Courts would determine whether a boycott caused financial harm and, if so, assess damages.

The legislation has drawn sharp criticism both in Israel and abroad.

Attorney general Yehuda Weinstein will defend the law in court but said in a statement that it verges on unconstitutionality. Parliament's legal counsel has also expressed grave reservations about the law.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both issued statements calling it a violation of freedom of expression. And Maariv quotes the British ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, as saying Britain was concerned about the law because it damages the legitimate right to freedom of speech.

At the heart of the controversy are the more than 120 settlements built in the West Bank since Israel captured the territory -- the core of the Palestinians' hoped-for state -- in 1967. Some 300,000 Israelis now live there, along with 200,000 more who live in the occupied eastern sector of Jerusalem.

Legislators drafted the law after learning that Israeli suppliers helping to build the first modern Palestinian city in the West Bank had pledged not to use products or services from Israeli settlements.

Settlers and other critics had accused the suppliers of caving in to an international boycott of settlement goods and businesses that many in Israel regard as a thinly veiled challenge to the country's very right to exist.

Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have stalled over the Palestinians' demand that an unwilling Israel halt all settlement construction.

In the absence of any progress toward a negotiated accord, the Palestinians plan to petition the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, a Palestinian man was killed Wednesday in an Israeli military raid on a West Bank refugee camp, the Palestinians said.

Israeli troops had entered the El Fara camp north of Nablus in pursuit of a fugitive militant. A witness, Emad Abu Kishik, said residents began throwing stones at the troops, who responded with live fire, killing Ibrahim Sarhan.

The military said troops fired at a man who tried to evade arrest.

Elsewhere, Israeli aircraft, struck two suspected weapons manufacturing sites in Gaza overnight. A Palestinian woman was reported injured.

The military said the airstrikes came in retaliation for rocket fire from Gaza on Israel on Tuesday.

Another rocket hit southern Israel on Wednesday morning. No one was hurt in any of the rocket attacks, the military said.