Terrorism Case Against Palestinian Organizations Goes to Jury

2-20-15 Suicide bombing Jan 2002
An Israeli soldier guards the scene after a suicide bombing in central Jerusalem, January 27, 2002. Dozens of people, including members of the Sokolow family who are plaintiffs in a trial against the Palestinian Authority and PLO, were wounded when a female Palestinian suicide bomber blew herself up outside a shoe store in Jerusalem's main shopping district. Nir Elias/Reuters

Jury deliberations were set to begin Friday in the case of Sokolow v. PLO, in which U.S. citizens who were injured or whose family members were killed in terrorist attacks in Israel have sued the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) for damages.

The lawsuit, filed in 2004, covers six attacks that took place between 2002 and 2004, during the second intifada, or uprising, in which 33 were killed and more than 450 were wounded. The prosecution argues that the PA and PLO supported the shooting and bombing attacks—whether via direct involvement or assistance in the form of material support or training. The organizations also allegedly paid the perpetrators of the attacks and continue to compensate those who were imprisoned as well as the families of those who died.

All 10 plaintiffs are American families, and thus the case is being tried in the U.S. under the Antiterrorism Act signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996, which gives American courts jurisdiction over acts of terrorism that harm U.S. citizens abroad.

Although lawyer Nitsana Darshan-Leitner and her Israel-based law office, Shurat HaDin, have been filing lawsuits against the Palestinian organizations for years, she tells Newsweek that this case marks the first time the PA has defended itself in court in a full trial in front of a jury.

"They would come into court, filing motions to dismiss," says Darshan-Leitner, whose office's tag line is "Bankrupting Terrorism—One Lawsuit at a Time." The defendants "say they have sovereign immunity and thus don't have to litigate the case," she explains, but "a plaintiff can go after them to enforce judgment even if they don't appear in court."

In this case, too, the defendants filed several motions to dismiss before it reached a jury trial, but the motions were denied by U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York George B. Daniels. In November, the judge cleared the way for the case to proceed when he reaffirmed a 2008 decision stating his court had jurisdiction over the claims.

Kent Yalowitz of Arnold & Porter LLP's New York office, who also worked as an attorney for the 10 families, told jurors that money could not make up for the lives lost and injuries suffered in the attacks, Reuters reports. "But if the only thing you can give them is money, then money has to stand in as compensation for the unspeakable loss," he said in his closing arguments Thursday.

"Money is oxygen for terrorists," he said. "Take away their money by making them pay their fair share for what they did."

On the other side of the courtroom, the PA and PLO denied that senior officials of the organizations, including the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat, aided Hamas and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, saying the attacks were carried out by low-level employees without approval.

"There is no concrete evidence that the senior leadership of the PA or the PLO were involved in planning or approving specific acts of violence," defense lawyer Mark Rochon said.

"It is not the right thing to hold the government liable for some people doing crazy and terrible things," said Rochon, who claimed the plaintiffs "exaggerated testimonies to make the Palestinian Authority look bad."

The plaintiffs are seeking $350 million, an amount that could be tripled under the Anti-Terrorism Act.

"This case, the first in the U.S. to go to full trial will be a test of the effectiveness of the Anti-Terrorism Act which was enacted following the Achille Lauro hijacking episode, specifically to address the brutality of Palestinian terrorism against Americans traveling abroad," Darshan-Leitner said in a statement emailed to Newsweek after the closing arguments were completed Thursday. "The families and their counsel are hopeful that they can achieve a measure of justice and some closure in their lives."

The case could also set a precedent for future legal action. If the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, the decision may set the stage for future terrorism trials in American courts. It would make "a very clear statement," Darshan-Leitner says, that "nobody can kill American citizens and go free."

From the Israeli perspective, she adds, "we'll prove that the Palestinian Authority was responsible for the suicide bombings and terror attacks taking place during the years of intifada and now have to pay for it."

"I think the significance of this ruling [would be] to deter the Palestinian Authority [from] ever getting involved again with supporting terrorism," Darshan-Leitner says. It will "teach the Palestinian Authority that it's too costly."

The trial coincided with Palestinians gaining access to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and has concluded less than two months before they can formally join on April 1. The Palestinian Authority joined the ICC seeking to file war crimes charges against Israel.

Darshan-Leitner predicts the jury will return with a verdict in Sokolow v. PLO early next week.