A legal trailblazer takes on terror

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Click photo to download. Caption: Attorney Nitzana Darshan-Leitner, pictured, is considered a legal trailblazer in Israel. Credit: Mike Cohen.

The late Leon Klinghoffer, an American Jew, was wheelchair bound. In 1985, he took a cruise on the Italian ship Achille Lauro, which was hijacked by the Palestine Liberation Front near Egypt. The terrorists threw Klinghoffer overboard, while he was alive, and let him drown. The incident shocked the world, including a 10-year-old girl named Nitzana. Back then, she didn’t fathom that the first time she would appear before Israel's Supreme Court, it would be on Klinghoffer's behalf.

Attorney Nitzana Darshan-Leitner is considered a legal trailblazer in Israel. Together with a long line of friends and colleagues (and a husband), she founded the Israel Law Center (“Shurat Hadin” in Hebrew), a Jewish human rights organization, in 2003. Over the course of the last nine years, the organization's litigators have filed hundreds of lawsuits against terror groups and governments that support terror.

“We have been awarded more than a billion dollars so far,” Darshan-Leitner said proudly in an interview with Israel Hayom. “But we have only been able to collect $120 million, which has been distributed among families of terror victims. I suppose that we will never see a large portion of the sums we have been awarded by the courts.”

Ever since her first days as a law student, Darshan-Leitner knew that she “would not be an ordinary lawyer.”

“I knew I would want to work in something extraordinary,” Darshan-Leitner recalled. And indeed, during her years at Bar-Ilan University she was always drawn to unusual fields.

“When the Oslo Accords were signed, Israel allowed arch-terrorists who had been exiled to return to their homes so that they could vote on behalf of the PLO. One of them was Abu Abbas, the mastermind of the Achille Lauro cruise ship attack. There was a group of some 20 law students who found this disturbing. We decided to petition the High Court of Justice,” she said.

Darshan-Leitner was selected as the one to go into the ring. “We didn’t have money to hire a lawyer. Everyone said that I should be present in the hearing because I was the only woman in the bunch, and the judges wouldn't dare yell at me, or force us to pay legal costs—which we had no way of paying. To appear in the High Court is a career climax for any attorney, and I was still a student.”

“That morning in Jerusalem, in 1996, the judges tried to talk me down with goodwill. They complimented me, said I could argue like the greatest litigators, and then hinted that we didn’t have a shot. But we refused to withdraw the petition. I said during the hearing: ‘Leon Klinghoffer's blood is screaming from the earth.’ Two weeks later, the court informed us that their hands were tied and that it was a government decision. At least we weren't stuck with the legal costs. It gave me a push. I realized that I could push the boundaries of what was possible.”

A loan for a lawsuit

In the years after that High Court loss, the original group of law students, who had by then become full-fledged lawyers, continued to work together. The formative incident that ultimately prompted the founding of the Israel Law Center was the lynching in Ramallah in 2000. Israel Defense Forces Reservists Vadim Nurzhitz and Yossi Avrahami lost their way and ended up in the Palestinian city. An angry Palestinian mob assaulted them, murdered them, and mutilated their bodies—all on camera.

“When the Intifada erupted, it was only natural to go and do what had never been done before,” Darshan-Leitner said. “To bring terror organizations and their supporters to justice.”

“This lynching took place within the Palestinian Authority, in a police building, with policemen taking active part. It was very clear that the Palestinian Authority needed to take responsibility and pay for what happened.”

Darshan-Leitner contacted Nurzhitz’s family, and launched the first lawsuit against the Palestinians on behalf of terror victims. “We were asked to pay $30,000 in that first case for witnesses, translations and evidence. We borrowed the money from an acquaintance, and we promised him that he would get 400 percent interest if we won. Who thought that we would get anything out of it? But as time progressed, and we invested more and more time, I realized that we couldn't pursue this thing as a side project.”

What exactly do you argue in such a trial?

“In order to prove the Palestinian Authority’s culpability, an anecdotal incident was not enough. They could argue, and they did argue, that the crime was committed outside their jurisdiction, and that the police officers who participated did not receive orders to do so. We showed that these were systematic murders. The Palestinian Authority was the body instigating the Intifada in those days. It was inciting to violence in its education system, in its mosques, people were being urged to commit murder. The Palestinian Authority itself was encouraging people to admire terrorists and naming town squares and towns after martyrs. It was an immense constellation of evidence.”

As a result, the court ordered NIS 64 million ($16.6 million) from the Palestinian Authority reserves to be paid as compensation, but even today, almost 12 years after the lynching, the victims' families haven't received the money. The transfer of funds is still pending appeals. “It won’t be over any time soon,” Darshan-Leitner surmised. “One of the challenging aspects of what we do is the battle against the Israeli establishment. The state itself should be dealing with this, and it is absurd that we, the citizens, are performing the state's duties. For years, courts in Israel viewed this issue as a legal hot potato, and tripped themselves up with empty claims. Now we are starting to see some progress, but in reality we haven't received a single verdict in Israel.”

What about government ministries?

“The Defense Ministry welcomes our work, because it is a legitimate, nonviolent means of combating terror. They know that money fuels terror. The Foreign Ministry, however, doesn't always see eye to eye with us. When Yasser Arafat was in power, everyone was on our side, but afterward we began getting messages urging us to stop pursuing the Palestinians, and Condoleezza Rice pushed to expunge the [Palestinian] debts.”

Why don’t you try to repair the injustice from the inside, from within the political establishment?

“I have no political aspirations. I feel that I have much more influence from without. I am not limited in any way, and I prefer to act independently, without the government. When they want me to stop, I have no obligation to do so. These lawsuits cannot be subject to political whims, you have to go all the way with them.”

Placing a lien on the Shah’s house

Recently, Darshan-Leitner achieved another significant victory: A Washington, D.C., court ordered Syria to pay $323 million in damages to the Israeli-American Wultz family, whose son Daniel was killed in a suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv fast food restaurant in 2006. During the course of the trial, the prosecution presented proof that the Islamic Jihad, which perpetrated the attack, enjoyed funding from Syria and Iran, and also trained there.

“This is an important and exciting verdict,” said Darshan-Leitner.

This story initially appeared in Israel Hayom and is distributed with the permission of that newspaper.

Posted on May 21, 2012 and filed under Features, Israel.