Are Palestinian terrorists immune from extradition?

Click photo to download. Caption: Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton, and Yasser Arafat at the signing of the Oslo Accords on Sept. 13, 1993. After Oslo, the American government for the first time was in a position to ask the Palestinian Authority to hand over killers of Americans—but that hasn't materialized despite the numerous Americans murdered in Palestinian terror attacks, writes Stephen M. Flatow. Credit: Vince Musi/The White House.

By Stephen M. Flatow/JNS.org

Poor Diego Alfonso Beltran! The U.S. Department of Justice has announced that Beltran, a member of the Columbian terrorist organization FARC, has been extradited to the U.S. to stand trial for an attack on American citizens in Columbia in 2003. It is Beltran’s misfortune that he is not a Palestinian. If he were, he could rest assured that the U.S. would never extradite him.

It is one of the great mysteries of American foreign policy that while terrorists from around the world are routinely extradited to the U.S. to be prosecuted for attacks on Americans, there is one class of killers that seems to be immune from extradition: Palestinians.

More than 100 Americans have been murdered by Palestinian terrorist attacks, mostly in Israel but sometimes in other countries, in the last several decades. Yet not a single Palestinian terrorist involved in those attacks has ever been brought to trial in the U.S.

Not one.

Think about that. If there had only been a few such attacks, and just a few American victims, one could understand why there had been no extraditions. But more than one hundred Americans killed, and many others wounded, means that at least several hundred Palestinian terrorists have been involved. And the U.S. government has been unable to bring even one of them to trial? Not even one?

Prior to the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, the U.S. did not have any relationship with the Palestinian leadership—it was simply a foreign terrorist organization—so there was no possibility of the Palestinians handing over a terrorist to the American authorities. But with Oslo, all that changed. The U.S. now had an official relationship with the Palestinian Authority (PA), the de-facto Palestinian government. The U.S. began training its security forces and giving it $500-million annually. For the first time, the American government was in a position to ask the Palestinians to hand over killers of Americans.

I say “hand over” because there’s a legal technicality involved. The U.S. has never had a formal extradition treaty with the PA. So, technically, the PA does not have a legal obligation to extradite terrorists to America. (The PA does, however, have a legal duty to extradite them to Israel—something it has never done.) But there are many countries that have surrendered terrorists to the United States outside the extradition channel. It’s called “rendition.” Either because of U.S. pressure, or because of a general desire to have friendly relations with the U.S., governments frequently agree to “rendition”—that is, to voluntarily hand over terrorists for prosecution in America.

Sometimes the U.S. brings the terrorists via rendition, even when an extradition treaty exists, simply in order to make the process faster and less complicated. In fact, it’s done so often with Mexico—even though there is a Mexico-U.S. treaty—that law enforcement officials long ago nicknamed it “extradition Mexican-style.”

Nevertheless, some U.S. government officials have tried to use the absence of a treaty with the PA as an excuse. When asked, in June 1997, about the failure to extradite Palestinian killers, U.S. Mideast envoy Dennis Ross told American Jewish leaders that “one of the obstacles to doing that is the fact that the United States does not have an extradition treaty with the Palestinian Authority.” Yet surely Ambassador Ross has heard of rendition. Why would he pretend that no such option exists?

Another frequently heard excuse is that the suspected Palestinian killers are in hiding and the U.S. doesn’t know where they are. That’s a joke. Some of them are serving in the PA’s own security forces—such as Bassam Issa, Kamal Khalifa, Yasser Khaskin, and Mahmad Sanwar, who were involved in the 1996 bombing in which U.S. citizens Sara Duker, Matthew Eisenfeld, and Ira Weinstein were killed. 

According to news reports, some Palestinian killers of Americans have been taken into protective custody by the PA in order to shelter them from the Israelis. (The PA does not seem to be worried about having to shelter them from the Americans.) Meaning, their whereabouts can be determined with one phone call from Washington to Ramallah.

The other commonly heard excuse—on the rare occasion that State Department officials are asked about these cases—is that they don't have sufficient evidence to bring an indictment. Sorry, that's just not plausible. Some Palestinian killers of Americans have been tried by the PA and given slap-on-the-wrist punishments; the U.S. could ask to see the evidence in those cases.

Some Palestinian suspects arrested by Israel have revealed the names of accomplices (in attacks on Americans) who are still at large; those confessions could be used by the U.S. to indict the fugitives. Israel itself has indicted some fugitive Palestinians who were involved in attacks in which Americans were among the victims; the U.S. could ask Israel to share the evidence used in those inducements.

The most absurd excuse had to do with Mohammed Abbas, mastermind of the cruise ship hijacking in which Leon Klinghoffer was murdered. Over the years, he lived in a number of countries from which the U.S. could have demanded his surrender—but the U.S. never acted, on the grounds that the statute of limitations on prosecuting Abbas had expired. Someone at the Justice Department forgot that there’s no statute of limitations on murder. (They wrapped themselves in the technicality that Abbas was wanted for hijacking, not murder.)

In short, the U.S. has plenty of leverage to convince the PA to hand over suspects—if it wants to use that leverage. The U.S. can easily locate some of the suspects—if it really wants to find them. The U.S. can secure the necessary evidence to indict them—if it really wants to indict.

So why doesn’t it want to?

Stephen M. Flatow

Stephen M. Flatow

The answer tears the issue away from the realm of justice and morality and into the fetid swamp of political convenience. The Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations developed a Middle East policy based on having friendly relations with the PA in order to pave the way for a Palestinian state. Putting a Palestinian terrorist on trial in America would infuriate the PA, which would defend the terrorist as a “hero” and a “martyr.” That would sour America’s relations with the PA, reveal that the PA’s view of terrorists has never changed, and undermine American public sympathy for Palestinian statehood. So killers of Americans roam free—and justice lies trampled in the dust. American victims of terror deserve better than that.

Stephen M. Flatow is an attorney and the father of Alisa Flatow, who was murdered by the Palestinian terrorist group Islamic Jihad in 1995.

Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.

Posted on December 4, 2014 and filed under Israel, Opinion, U.S..