A New York federal jury today found the Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization liable for a series of attacks that took place in present-day Israel and Jerusalem between 2000 and 2004, causing the deaths of 33 people and injuries to many more.
The jury awarded the plaintiffs $218.5 million of the original one billion dollars sought in damages. Damages awarded in cases filed under the the Anti-Terrorism Act are automatically tripled, bringing the total amount owed by the Palestinian political bodies to $655.5 million.
Under the law, Americans can sue foreign individuals, organizations and institutions for allegedly supporting acts of international terrorism. Shurat HaDin, a lawfare group linked to Israel’s intelligence service Mossad, had initiated the suit in 2004 under its motto of “bankrupting terror.”
The civil trial began seven weeks ago on the heels of another New York federal court finding the Arab Bank liable for damages for military activities carried out by Hamas — in what was believed to be the first successful civil suit against a financial institution under the anti-terrorism statute.
In the civil suit against the Palestinian political apparatus, plaintiffs had alleged that the PA and PLO had enabled and encouraged the execution of the acts, while the defense maintained that the perpetrators had acted on their own.
In his closing statement to the jury last Thursday, defense attorney Mark Rochon said, “There is no conclusive evidence that the senior leaderships of the PA or PLO were involved in planning or approving specific acts of violence.”
But citing convictions meted out by Israel’s military court system, plaintiffs alleged that at least one employee of the Palestinian Authority was involved in each attack.
According to Michael Ratner, former president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, the defense had tried to argue against the admission of the military court convictions, asserting they should not be given validity in a US court due to the total lack of due process afforded to defendants. But presiding Judge George Daniels nevertheless admitted the records.
The Wall Street Journal described the trial as “politically charged” and, as detailed by The New York Times and Associated Press, the jury heard emotional testimonies from the family members of those killed. Shurat HaDin attorney Kent Yalowitz projected a picture of late PLO leader Yasser Arafat during the trial, pointing to him as the source of funding and encouragement for “martyrdom payments” and violence against Israel.
The jury also heard from Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and the executive committee of the PLO, who told the jury in her testimony for the defense that “We tried to prevent violence from all sides.”
Because the United States does not recognize “Palestine” as a state, the PA and PLO were not eligible for sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity protects Israeli officials who commit what human rights groups call war crimes against Palestinians from prosecution in US courts.
“The Palestinian Authority is sued, and, of course, 134 countries out of 193 consider Palestine to be a state. It’s been recognized by the UN to be a state. It signs international agreements as a state, including the International Criminal Court agreement as a state. And yet the United States courts refuse to apply the immunity law, saying Palestine Authority [sic], the Palestinian state, cannot be sued,” Ratner told the Real News Network.
Some observers believe the recent pair of successful anti-terrorism cases against the Palestinian political groups and the Arab Bank may open US courts to further litigation under the law. Others have predicted that a verdict favorable to the plaintiffs could compromise the PA’s attempts to utilize the International Criminal Court to hold Israel accountable for alleged war crimes.
While Shurat HaDin has a patchy record of collecting damages awarded in its successful cases, Yalowitz has vowed to pursue the assets of the PA and PLO, including bank accounts, securities and real estate, according to the Associated Press.
In a statement released to the press, PA deputy minister of information Mahmoud Khalifa said the charges are baseless and they will appeal the verdict.
The verdict creates an interesting situation: the Palestinian Authority receives hundreds of millions of dollars in aid annually from the United States, and Israeli occupation forces cooperate closely with PA forces in order to suppress Palestinian protest and resistance.
If the verdict stands, it would mean Israel and the United States are funding and working closely with organizations that a US court has deemed responsible for “terrorism.”