In the latest challenge to banks accused of helping fund terrorists, a federal judge here has allowed victims of Palestinian attacks and their families to sue a major British institution, National Westminster, that does business and has assets in the United States.
Judge Charles Sifton of the Eastern District court in Brooklyn last week dismissed one claim that the bank "aided and abetted the murder, attempted murder and serious bodily injury of American nationals," while upholding two similar claims that the bank knowingly provided material support and unlawfully collected funds that led to attacks.
The plaintiffs (15 families who lost loved ones in attacks on Israel during the intifada in 2002 and 2003) allege that the bank, known as NatWest, a division of Royal Bank of Scotland and one of the four largest banks in the United Kingdom, facilitated transactions through a Palestinian Web site that aided Hamas.
Both Hamas and the organization that runs the Web site, Interpal, have been designated terrorist entities by U.S. authorities. President Bush froze all assets of Hamas in the United States following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Lawyers for the bank had argued that the transactions in question occurred too far in advance of the terror attacks cited by the victims to be directly tied to them. They also argued that the British Charity Commission had twice, after initially freezing its assets, found Interpal not to be linked to terrorists, and therefore British law does not prohibit the transactions.
Sifton ruled that while more lenient British law does not require NatWest to cease transactions with groups named in the suit, it also does not require the bank to do business with them.
"Accordingly, NatWest is free, and indeed obligated to follow the more stringent American law," the judge wrote.
He also noted that "given the fungible nature of money … I cannot conclude as a matter of law that NatWest’s transaction in 2000 could not be the proximate cause of an attack that occurred less than two years later in 2002."
Court papers detail three transactions in which NatWest allegedly accepted deposits on behalf of Interpal, including a deposit of $70 million in January 2001, as well as three instances of alleged transfers by NatWest to Hamas front organizations, including one totaling more than $139,000.
A lawyer for the bank, Larry Friedman, was not immediately available for comment Tuesday.
Among the plaintiffs are relatives of several victims of July 2002 bombing at a Hebrew University cafeteria: Janis Coulter, Dina Carter, Benjamin Blutstein and David Gritz. The blast killed nine and injured 85.
Also suing NatWest are relatives of Steven Averbuch, a New Jersey native who became paralyzed after trying unsuccessfully to stop a suicide bomber on a Jerusalem bus in May 2003; and the family of Tehilla Nathansen, a 3-year-old girl murdered the same year when a bomb destroyed a bus near the Western Wall.
Other attacks cited in the suit include the March 2002 Passover seder bombing at the Park Hotel in Netanya; the May 2002 bombing of an open market in Netanya; a bombing the same month at a gambling parlor in Rishon Letzion; a January 2003 shooting on Highway 60 in the West Bank; and the April 2003 bombing of Mike’s Place, a cafe in Tel Aviv.
The 15 families in the suit include several who are also seeking damages from Arab Bank in a separate ongoing suit alleging that institution wired money to terrorists to compensate the families of suicide bombers. That case is expected to proceed to trial following the conclusion of depositions.
Both suits are part of an initiative called the Terror Victims Litigation Project, which takes advantage of civil provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Act passed in 1992, enabling American citizens to sue foreign entities in U.S. courts.
"The goal is, first, to compensate the victims for their injuries and second, to deter NatWest and other financial institutions from doing business with specially designated global terrorist entities," said Gary Osen, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Osen said he will amend the complaint in order to reinstate the claim that NatWest aided and abetted in the murder and attempted murder of Americans.