The door has now been opened for a fresh look at pending civil suits in Israel against the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Liberation Organization — as well as possible new suits here — after a Manhattan federal jury Monday found the groups liable for six terror attacks in Israel between 2002 and 2004 that killed and injured Americans.
That’s the view of Nitsana Darshan Leitner, Israel counsel to the victim families. “We are always prepared to file new cases for victims of Palestinian terrorism if we can establish the evidence,” she told The Jewish Week via email.
“We have many cases against the PA pending in the Israeli courts. We really hope the Israeli government will finally understand the utility of our civil actions and start supporting the litigation wholeheartedly,” she added.
The jury verdict, reached after six weeks of testimony before Manhattan Federal Judge George Daniels, awarded the 10 American families who brought the case $218.5 million in damages, a figure that is tripled to $655.5 million by provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Act, under which the suit was filed 11 years ago.
But whether the victims will be able to collect the jury award is unknown, as that process would likely run into political pressure given the Palestinian Authority’s standing in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Attorneys are only now permitted to pursue documentation of the groups’ assets. Evidence presented during the trial revealed the PA has been paying imprisoned terrorists and their families $50 million a year.
Although several victims and their families testified during the trial, none were in the courtroom when the verdict was read. One of them, Arieh Mendelkorn, whose 18-year-old son was critically injured in a suicide bombing in 2002, told The Jewish Week by phone from Israel: “Hashem [God] has done justice in this world. We thank Hashem, who has given retribution to those who abused us. We see what evil we have to face and we have overcome with Hashem’s power.”
He said his son, Shaul, was in a coma for two days after the bombing in the French Hill section of Jerusalem. He underwent a year of orthopedic work and rehabilitation and today, at the age of 31, has permanent damage to his left eye.
Alan Bauer, who was injured along with his 7-year-old son when a Palestinian policeman blew himself up directly behind them as they walked home, said by phone from Jerusalem that he and his family are “thrilled” by the verdict.
A native of Chicago, Bauer said he was walking home from the office and holding the hand of his son, Yoni, in March 2002 when the bomb exploded.
“I was thrown forward,” he said. When he regained his senses, he saw that his hand was “covered in blood and I couldn’t find my son. I then saw him face down. I picked him up and heard him moaning, so I knew he was alive. He was taken to an ambulance and in the ambulance they removed a towel drenched in blood from the back of his head.”
Bauer, a biochemist and father of four sons, said doctors found that two screws had penetrated his left arm and that a screw had gone through his son’s brain.
“He was put in coma to let fluid drain out and was then left blind and paralyzed on his left side,” he recalled.
Bauer said his son, who will be 20 this year, testified during the trial and told the jury that he has regained partial vision but that his left side is still weaker than his right.
“The reason we sued was that six months after the bombing there was a published report that said those who sent the bomber were employees of the PA,” he said.
The bomb killed three Israelis, including a young couple returning from the doctor’s office.
“She was pregnant and had just had an ultrasound,” Bauer said. “I spoke with the brother of one of the Israelis killed and he is suing the PA in Israel. The case is in the preliminary stages, but he is hopeful the verdict in the U.S. will have a positive impact on the Israeli courts. Most such cases are thrown out here because there is no legal framework to pursue them like there is in the U.S.”
The Anti-Terrorism Act was enacted in the U.S. following the Achille Lauro hijacking, and Leitner said this was the first trial to test the effectiveness of the law. It was specifically designed “to address the brutality of Palestinian terrorism against Americans traveling abroad,” she noted.
Among the other family members and victims who testified was Rena Sokolow of Cedarhurst, L.I. She said she was on a family vacation to Israel in 2002 when she was knocked down by a bomb blast while buying a pair of shoes for her 12-year-old son. She said she felt as though she “was in a washing machine” as blood raced from her broken leg so quickly she thought she would die.
“I looked to my right and saw a severed head of a woman about 3 feet from me,” she told the jurors.
Leitner said the trial provided evidence “for the first time [in] an American court” of the “PA’s policies and culture of glorifying the suicide bombers and terrorist masterminds. The defendants in the end offered almost no evidence and no reasonable explanation for their policy of rewarding convicted terrorists — a policy that continues to the present day.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement that Israel expects “the responsible elements in the international community to continue to punish those who support terrorism just as the U.S. federal court has done and to back the countries that are fighting terrorism.
“Today as well we remember the families that lost their loved ones; our heart is with them and there is no justice that can console them,” he added.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement that the ADL is “gratified that the U.S. civil judicial process provided a venue to hold the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization accountable for the heinous acts of terrorism they incited, promoted, financed and carried out against the victims.” He added that the international community “failed to impose consequences” on the PA and the PLO for its actions and that the verdict “brings a measure of justice for these murderous acts.”
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, also welcomed the verdict, saying: “Perpetrators of terrorism and their sponsors must be held accountable. Though the legal process took a long time, the victims' families have finally seen justice in the admirable, reasoned decision of the jury in a federal court in New York.”
Jonathan Tobin, a senior editor at Commentary magazine, wrote that the verdict “should remove any doubt about the fact that so-called Palestinian moderates are as connected to terrorism as more extreme factions like Hamas. … The decision strips away the veneer of respectability that figures such as PA leader Mahmoud Abbas have acquired from both the Obama administration and the mainstream media.”
Last September, a jury in Brooklyn federal court ruled that the Jordan-based Arab Bank had knowingly financed the Hamas terrorist organization, which was responsible for a string of suicide bombings that killed and wounded American citizens. In May, another jury will hear from victims and their families in order to determine how much the bank must pay the victims and their families.
Yuval Shany, dean of the law school at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told The Jewish Week that he believes that neither the U.S. nor the Israeli governments are likely to help the plaintiffs collect their judgment against the PA and PLO.
“I’m not sure any of the parties have an interest in seeing the PA collapse financially, and so I don’t see strong diplomatic pressure aligned to enforce [the judgment],” he said. “And so far the Israeli government has been very ambivalent about cases against the PA.”
Leitner said that should the PA and PLO refuse to pay the judgment, the attorneys would “go after their assets in the U.S. and in Israel.”
“We’ll seek to locate their offices and bank accounts in the U.S. and we’ll go after their taxes that Israel collects — $100 million a month,” she said. “If they want to file an appeal, they will have to post a bond. If they lose, we would collect the bond.”
Shany, however, expressed reservations about their ability to collect the judgment. He noted that the Israeli government is withholding the PA’s tax collection money, a move initiated in December in response to the PA taking steps to join the International Court of Justice — a prerequisite to filing war crimes charges against Israel.
“I’m not sure you can confiscate money that has already been confiscated, and it is not clear whether the Israeli government would support such efforts by private litigants because it would have political implications,” she said. “It is also not clear if the courts here would cooperate with the process because there are some immunity issues that have been raised. It has taken years for cases to be brought here against the PA, and no cases in which immunity from seizing property been litigated.”
Thus, Shany said, “economic, political and legal factors makes it difficult.”
He pointed out that Leitner and her organization, Shurat HaDin — The Israel Law Center, have won other cases in the U.S. in behalf of American victims of Israeli terror attacks. But he said her organization’s website acknowledges being able to get back only about 10 percent of the money awarded.
“That is not insignificant,” he said, “but it is indicative of the gap between getting an award and being able to collect.”