Report

The $655.5 Million Question

Will a massive verdict against the Palestinian Authority open the floodgates for new suits against terrorist groups and their alleged sponsors?

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For Alan Bauer, an American citizen wounded along with his 7-year-old boy nearly 13 years ago by a Palestinian suicide bomber, the trek to justice took nearly 13 long years.

On Monday, Feb. 23, a New York jury awarded Bauer and nine other plaintiffs $218.5 million in compensatory damages, to be paid by the financially strapped Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The award is expected to swell to a whopping $655.5 million because a U.S. terrorism law requires the tripling of terrorism awards. The huge award may serve as an incentive to others considering pursuing civil terrorism lawsuits in American courts. For the moment, it remains hard to imagine how the plaintiffs will be able to collect on the multimillion-dollar award, given the Palestinians’ dire financial straits.

In all, the jury found the Palestinian leadership responsible for six terrorist attacks carried out in Israel between 2002 and 2004, the height of the Second Intifada, by Palestinian militants with links to the Palestinians’ chief governing bodies. The strikes killed 33 U.S. and Israeli nationals and wounded more than 400 more.

Monday’s ruling marks the culmination of an 11-year-long legal case spearheaded by the Israel Law Center, or Shurat HaDin, a nonprofit whose lawsuits often align with Israeli government priorities. For more than a decade, the Israeli legal group has sought to wield the power of lawsuits to undercut the financing for anti-Israeli militant groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah.

The group filed the current case in 2004 under anti-terrorism legislation that was passed after Palestinian militants hijacked the MS Achille Lauro in 1985, killing Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled Jewish American man in a wheelchair. The law permits U.S. nationals who are victimized abroad by foreign terrorists to pursue them in American courts. Last September, a Brooklyn jury found the Jordanian-based Arab Bank responsible for a string of other terrorist attacks carried out by the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Damages in that case will be determined in May.

“After 11 years, we are very grateful to the American court and the American jury,” Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, the founder of Shurat HaDin, told Foreign Policy after the verdict was issued. “No money brings back life, and no money can heal the physical and psychological wounds of the plaintiffs. But it brings closure and justice to the victims and shows everyone who is thinking about becoming involved in terrorism to think twice. The PLO now knows that there is a price to be paid for sending suicide bombers into our cafes and into our malls.”

Darshan-Leitner said cutting off funding for extremist groups is vital to any push to prevent new attacks. “Money is like oxygen for terrorism,” she said. “If you can stop the flow of money you can stop the flow of terrorism.”

The verdict comes as the State Department has grown increasingly concerned about the prospect of the Palestinian Authority collapsing from a lack of funds. Last month, the Israeli government cut off $100 million in tax revenues it owes the Palestinians in retaliation for their decision to join the International Criminal Court.

In a statement issued after the verdict, the Palestinian Authority said it was “deeply disappointed” and that it “will appeal this decision.”

“This case is just the latest attempt by hardline anti-peace factions in Israel to use and abuse the U.S. legal system to advance their narrow political and ideological agenda,” Mahmoud Khalifa, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, said in the statement. “We are confident that we will prevail, as we have faith in the U.S. legal system and are certain about our common sense belief and our strong legal standing.”

Last week, Mark Rochon, an attorney representing the Palestinian government, argued in his closing arguments that the Palestinian leadership played no role in the terrorist attacks, which were carried out by militants who happened to work for the Palestinian Authority. “These incidents are by the extremists, the bad guys who keep the good things from happening, and a verdict against the Palestinian Authority or the PLO would only damage the government and the PLO who don’t deserve it,” he told the jury.

Outside groups have long raised questions about Shurat HaDin, whose lawyers successfully won the case. A U.S. government cable made public by WikiLeaks claims that Darshan-Leitner’s group has worked closely with Israeli intelligence in picking lawsuits and gathering evidence. In an interview, Darshan-Leitner said she sometimes receives information from Israeli government sources but that the organization is independent and the Israeli government played no role in the New York lawsuit.

Bauer said that Palestinians have long argued that the attacks were “hatched out” by free agents, “but our feeling was there was a much broader narrative.” He said there was a “significant amount of evidence people associated with the PLO were involved in planning, financing, and executing the attack, and we kept pushing.”

Bauer said he was walking hand in hand with his son Jonathan, only 7 at the time, along King George Street in downtown Jerusalem in March 2002 when a Palestinian militant, a former policeman, blew himself up. The policemen, who had previously been detained in Ramallah by Palestinian authorities under suspicion of planning a separate attack, had been released from a Palestinian jail shortly before the attack.

“I was thrown like 20 feet forward. When I got up my hand was covered with blood,” Bauer said, recalling that two screws passed clear through his left arm. His son was unconscious, his head bleeding as a result of a Phillips screw having driven itself through his brain. Bauer said his son, now 20, still walks with a limp.

Bauer said the outcome provides him with a “certain level of vindication.” But he said the experience also leaves him with a certain degree of bitterness over the U.S. approach to his case and others involving efforts to hold Palestinian perpetrators accountable. The State Department, he said, “was always against us.”

Bauer said he doesn’t want to see the Palestinian Authority collapse because it would impose a burden on Israel to administer the territory currently under the Palestinians’ control. But he hopes the verdict would raise the costs for backing terrorists.

Photo credit: Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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