Shukri Bishara, finance minister for the Palestinian Authority and former chief executive at Arab Bank, admitted that he had cut a check for thousands of dollars to a senior Hamas leader while working for the bank during a landmark terror finance case on Thursday before a New York federal court.
In one of many instances in the case where Arab Bank's witnesses have sparred with plaintiffs' lawyers, Bishara had originally said the bank wouldn’t have anything to gain by funding terrorists, before admitting that he had cut the check for a man on the US terror blacklist.
Many terror operations cost far less than the $8,000 check paid to the Hamas operative.
The 297 plaintiffs are suing Arab Bank for potentially billions of dollars.
They allege that the bank is liable for wrongful death damages because it helped move money that was used to finance attacks that killed their family members.
Plaintiffs said the bank facilitated massive payments to Hamas leaders and institutions, as well as to the families of imprisoned Hamas members and suicide bombers, via Saudi Arabia and Hezbollah’s al-Shahid Foundation, mostly between 1998 and 2004 (though evidence has focused on 2001-2004).
Arab Bank, practically Jordan’s sovereign bank and one of the largest in the Middle East with branches in 30 countries, said the plaintiffs can’t prove the funds contributed sufficiently to terrorist attacks and that the bank knew of a terrorist connection.
While being questioned by his own lawyers as a supporting witness, Mr. Bishara presented in much the same manner that Arab Bank Chairman Sabih Al-Masri had: a charming, western-educated finance executive with strong ties to the West whose family was touched by terrorism.
“We were living in complete fear, panic,” Mr. Bishara said of his family’s time living in Jerusalem during the Second Intifada.
After a suicide bomber attacked his children’s school, he moved them to Amman, Jordan.
Mr. Bishara asserted that banks have a vested interest in peace, not violence.
The intifada “was a calamity for the economy” and the banking sector was “very close to having systemic meltdown,” he said.
Under cross examination by a counsel for plaintiffs, Mark Werbner, Mr. Bishara’s tone changed from gregarious to acrimonious.
The witness objected to Mr. Werbner’s presentation of the facts—from whether the Second Intifada could be characterized as “violent” to the definitions of various words at issue in the case—prompting Judge Brian Cogan to repeatedly jump in as referee.
The most heated exchange came when Mr. Werbner asserted that Mr. Bishara released funds from a bank account belonging to senior Hamas leader Osama Hamdan.
“You gave this terrorist $8,000, the man who moves weapons and explosives,” Mr. Werbner exclaimed. “You had no other choice than to give this terrorist $8,000?”
“My concern was to get rid of the account,” Bishara explained, having admitted he knew Mr. Hamdan was on the U.S. terror blacklist at the time.
“There was simply no way” to close the account without a court order or Hamdan being designated a terrorist by Lebanon, he said.
Defense lawyers say the so-called “Beirut Account” was first brought to the bank’s attention in 2004 by this lawsuit. After waiting five or six months to find another solution, Mr. Bishara said, Arab Bank ultimately cut a check to Osama Hamdan and closed the account.
This fund transfer has burdened the bank’s main defense, which was that most transfers were made to those who were not on any US watch list at the time.
On the flip side, when Hamdan opened the account in Lebanon he was not yet designated a terrorist. The bank did all appropriate diligence at that time, including clearing his name and the establishment of the account with the Central Bank of Lebanon.
Also, the bank made a voluntary decision in 2002 to implement checking the US watch list at significant expense, with the screening going active in 2004.
The bank has said this put it years ahead of its peer institutions, including stating that Israeli banks incorporated the same screening into their automated systems only in 2010.
As a result, the bank said at the time of the Hamdan designation in 2003, it was not yet applying the US watch list to banking activity outside the US, which it says explains why there was not automatic closure at that time.
The trial has not been short on contentious exchanges—or colorful ones.
The day before, the defense’s Hamas expert, Beverly Milton-Edwards, admitted to the court that she could not read the word “Hamas” in Arabic. The admission came after another lawyer for plaintiffs, Gary Osen, pointed to a Hamas poster and asked her to read it aloud.
“I can't. It's in Arabic,” she said, adding that she could speak but not read the language.
The professor and co-author of a book called “Hamas: The Islamic Resistance Movement” also said she worked with a man from MI-6, whom she casually referred to as “my friend, Mr. Bond.”