By Alina Dain Sharon/JNS.org
An Israeli legal rights NGO and an attorney, who together won the largest judgment ever against the Palestinian Authority (PA) in America, say a U.S. Appeals Court decision to dismiss the judgment sets a bad precedent for future legal attempts to hold the PA responsible for terrorism against Americans in U.S. courts.
The Shurat HaDin – Israel Law Center had joined forces with attorney Kent Yalowitz, of the law firm Arnold & Porter LLP, to sue the PA on behalf of 10 American families of victims of the Second Intifada. They won a $655.5 million compensation judgment in February 2015 after a Manhattan Federal Court jury found the PA was liable for terrorist attacks in which Americans were hurt. The U.S. Appeals Court then overturned the judgment on Aug. 31, blowing a hole in the legal effort to hold the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) accountable for the deaths of 33 Americans in terror attacks that occurred in Israel between 2001 and 2004.
“The case was dismissed on a technicality,” Shurat HaDin Director Nitsana Darshan-Leitner told JNS.org.
The appeals court’s decision stated that the PA and its parent organization, the PLO, do not have sufficient ties to the U.S. for American courts to have jurisdiction on their prosecution, citing the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution. Nor did the court believe there was any evidence the terror attacks targeted U.S. citizens specifically.
PA lawyer Gassan Baloul, of the firm Squire Patton Boggs LLP, welcomed the new ruling, telling the Jerusalem Post, “we are very gratified that the court fully accepted our clients’ consistent position that the PA and the PLO are not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States courts in these matters.”
“We obviously don’t agree,” Darshan-Leitner said, adding that the new ruling flies in the face of the Anti-Terrorism Act, passed in 1990 to protect Americans traveling around the world, and to make it easier for U.S. terror victims and their families to sue terrorists for civil damages. The act followed the 1985 murder of Jewish-American appliance manufacturer Leon Klinghoffer, who was thrown overboard the Achille Lauro by Palestinian hijackers.
Darshan-Leitner said Shurat Hadin would appeal the new decision. It also plans to reach out to Congress to request that it address the loophole in the act.
Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), told JNS.org that “Congress will likely need to go back and assess how to fill these loopholes. It will be crucial for this to happen, in my view. The PA and PLO’s ability to evade responsibility for terrorist attacks sets a very dangerous precedent.”
Attorney Kent Yalowitz also told JNS.org that while Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism Act to protect traveling Americans, the same terrorists who prompted the passing of this law are now hiding behind the U.S. Constitution to avoid responsibility for their crimes.
“No one denies, as the federal jury has found, that the Palestinians carried out these attacks and killed and injured these American citizens, who will not give up seeking justice from the courts,” he said. And he calls on Congress and the U.S. State Department “to intervene on the side of American victims of terror to ensure that these families are compensated by the PA and PLO for these crimes.”
In the meantime, Darshan-Leitner believes that other litigation the group undertakes against the PA and the PLO could be affected by the ruling. Lawyers for the defendants could raise the decision in those courts, prompting the judges to issue similar rulings.
“The families of the American citizens who were murdered by the Palestinian terrorists have waited too many years to see justice done,” Rabbi Joel Meyers, chair of the U.S. branch of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), said in a statement. “No amount of money can compensate for the pain and loss of loved ones, but those who knowingly planned, financed and carried out vicious terrorist attacks that led to the murder and injuries of American citizens should be held accountable and punished as was decided by the lower court.”
He added, “We hope this dismissal will be appealed and that terrorist entities and those who support them will be held responsible for their horrific crimes.”