New York jury finds Palestinian groups liable for terror attacks

Jurors award $218.5 million to victims of Palestinian groups; figure expected to triple under U.S. terror laws

A federal jury in New York has found the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority liable for a series of terrorist attacks that killed or wounded Americans in Israel during the early 2000s, officials announced Monday.

The verdict, which is expected to be appealed, was the first time the PLO and the authority were held directly liable in terrorist attacks. The jury awarded $218.5 million in damages, a figure that is expected to triple to $655.5 million under provisions of the U.S. terrorism laws under which the case was brought.

"The Palestinian Authority and the PLO have been found liable by an American jury for six heinous terrorist attacks that killed and injured hundreds of civilians," said lead trial counsel Kent Yalowitz of Arnold & Porter.

"The PA and PLO policies of financial inducements and rewards for terrorism that are at the center of this case unfortunately continue today, more than a decade later," he stated.

It was unknown what the plaintiffs could collect if the verdict is sustained on appeal. But the verdict carries political importance because Israel can use it to support its position that it cannot negotiate with even moderate Palestinians because their groups were implicated in terrorist acts.

Complicating the situation is the dire financial status of the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas. The government was having financial problems even before Israel began withholding more than $100 million a month it collects on behalf of the Palestinians as punishment for the authority’s December move to join the International Criminal Court and to seek to prosecute Israel for war crimes.

“We will continue to denounce extremism and violence and to maintain our strong commitment to the peaceful popular resistance as well as hope for political, legal and moral international justice,” the Palestinian Authority said in a statement. “We remain as always ready to be partner in the peace process and a strong advocate for the rights of our people and our nation to live as a free, independent, democratic and prosperous state living in peace with its neighbors.”

The authority denounced the New York case as “nothing other than an additional attempt by hard-liners in Israel to exploit and abuse the legal system in the United States in a way to justify extremism by the Israeli government and the disruption of the two-state solution.”

The verdict came in the seventh week of a civil trial in which the jury had heard emotional testimony from survivors of suicide bombings and other attacks in Jerusalem, in which a total of 33 people were killed and more than 450 were injured.

The plaintiffs included 10 families, about 36 people, eight of whom had been hurt in the attacks; the others said they had been emotionally traumatized. The plaintiffs also included the estates of four American victims who had been killed in the attacks, which occurred on the street and at a crowded bus stop, and in a cafeteria on the campus of Hebrew University.

Rena Sokolov described how a family vacation to Israel in 2002 turned to tragedy with a bomb blast outside a Jerusalem shoe store. The Long Island woman testified that she felt as though she “was in a washing machine,” and blood flowed so quickly from a broken leg she thought she would die.

“I looked to my right and saw a severed head of a woman about three feet from me,” she said, according to reports from the courtroom. 

The case was brought under the Anti-Terrorism Act, which allows American nationals who are victims of international terrorism to sue in the United States courts. The law was used in September by a Brooklyn jury to find Arab Bank liable for supporting terrorism by Hamas.

“Money is oxygen for terrorism,” Yalowitz, a lawyer for the families, said in a closing argument Thursday, arguing that the anti-terrorism law “hits those who send terrorists where it hurts them most: in the wallet.”

The defense had argued that their clients had nothing to do with the attacks.

Mark J. Rochon, a defense lawyer, told the jury Thursday 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.”

Among those testifying was Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO’s executive committee, who told the jury, “We tried to prevent violence from all sides.”

Staff writer Muskal reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent Abukhater from Ramallah, West Bank.

Follow @latimesmuskal for national news.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


2:57 p.m.: This story has been updated wit hstatement from lead attorney who brought the case.