By Rachel Delia Benaim
NEW YORK — A federal jury has found the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority liable for supporting terror attacks in Israel during the bloody Second Intifada more than a decade ago, and ordered them to pay $218.5 million in damages to the 11 American families that brought the lawsuit.
But the sum will skyrocket to $655.5 million because of a unique provision that triples damages under the anti-terrorism law that allowed the lawsuit. The suit covers six specific terror attacks that killed 33 and wounded more than 450 civilians, that occurred between 2002 and 2004.
The seven month-long civil trial was held in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan, with a verdict reached Monday. The lawsuit was filed in 2004 under the Antiterrorism Act of 1996. It gives American courts jurisdiction to try acts of terror that harmed Americans while they were abroad.
Victims said they were pleased with the outcome of the trial, that after more than a decade, they have some peace.
Jamie Sokolow, 25, of Long Island, was 12 when a Jerusalem terrorist attack left her bloody, with shrapnel damaging her right eye.
“I am thankful that after 13 years since our attack and 10 years since the filing of the case, we and the other plaintiffs have finally received justice in a U.S. court,” Sokolow said. “I am also grateful to our lawyers who worked so hard on our behalf.”
It is unclear whether the plaintiffs will see the compensation, but the jury’s decision is momentous, said their lawyers.
“This historic verdict against the defendants will not bring back these families’ loved ones nor heal the physical and psychological wounds inflicted upon them, but it truly is an important measure of justice and closure for them after their long years of tragic suffering and pain,” said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, the director of the Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center, which worked on the case.
Speaking for the plaintiffs’ legal team, Kent A. Yalowitz said: “We hope as lawyers that we have, after years of difficult and emotional effort, secured for the families today a small measure of justice.”
The defendants are expected to appeal.
Darshan-Leitner, for one, said she and her organization will be ready for the appeal: “When they file their appeal, we’ll respond. I don’t think they’ll win.”
Grant Rumley, a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies specializing in Palestinian politics, noted that this verdict is “one victory” in what could be a “long, drawn out legal battle.”
The PLO’s and the P.A.’s defense lawyers argued that they did not violate the Antiterrorism Act, and that they, as governing bodies, should not be held accountable for the violent actions of citizens who acted on their own accord, or were under the influence of more radical groups like Hamas.
Mark J. Rochon, an attorney for the PLO, told the jury during closing arguments that he did not want “the bad guys, the killers, the people who did this, to get away while the Palestinian Authority or the PLO pay for something they did not do.”
This verdict, plus with last September’s Brooklyn federal court ruling which found the Arab Bank liable for having provided material support to Hamas, could have implications for Arab-Israeli relations.
“There are going to be three ways this verdict impacts the Palestinians,” Rumley said.
From the standpoint of the Palestinian Authority, this blow could cause even more difficulties to its already dire financial state, he indicated.
“The P.A. is strapped for cash,” he said, alluding to its inability to pay salaries and the recent Israeli move to withhold P.A. allocated funds.
The P.A.’s finances could “render the payment of all the compensation damages not so feasible,” said Solon Solomon, a former member of the Knesset Legal Department in charge of international and constitutional issues and currently a legal researcher in King’s College London Dickson Poon School of Law.
But Darshan-Leitner of the Israel Law Center, which has been a major source of support throughout this case, said, “If the P.A. and PLO have the funds to pay the families of the suicide bombers each month,” referring to advertisements shown in the trial in which financial compensation was offered to the families of “martyrs” — suicide bombers — “then they have the money to pay these victims of Palestinian terrorism.”
The P.A.’s financials, however, are far from simple.
Since a United Nations vote in November 2012, Palestine has been granted official “observer state” status.
In December, Palestinians moved to join the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court. Many have speculated that this move could lead to increased investigations of potential Israeli war crimes in Gaza. But following the Palestinian move to join the ICC, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu withheld crucial tax revenue that it collects for the P.A., which has left it lacking funds for basic amenities like fuel and electricity.
However, this verdict could jeopardize the ICC bid. The P.A. lost this case in Manhattan on the grounds that, as Rumley described, “the P.A. is now responsible for actions of even some of the lowest foot soldiers.”
If the U.S. courts just created that precedent — one which holds the P.A. responsible for all Palestinians, rogue or not — then, Rumley asked, “are they responsible for Hamas firing rockets from Gaza?” This new nuance could halt their ICC bid, or perhaps lead to a major rift in internal Palestinian leadership, he said.
In closing arguments Thursday, Yalowitz said: “Money is oxygen for terrorism.”
Adding an upwards of $600 million tab to the already struggling P.A. may suffocate terrorism, but it’s more likely to suffocate the Palestinian people. “The 600 million dollar bill isn’t likely to have a near-term direct impact on the Palestinian people,” Rumley explained, rather “it could change the calculus for the Palestinian leadership.” And that’s the current fear.
The overall financial implications of trial’s outcome are not yet apparent, though the coming days and weeks will be telling both for the financials of the P.A., and, according to Darshan-Leitner, for the victims.