A US jury on Monday handed down an historic verdict against the Palestinian Authority for involvement in six terrorist attacks from the time of the second intifada, pummeling it with a $655.5 million judgment in wrongful death damages.
The PA immediately indicated it would appeal the verdict.
The $655.5m. sum was based on a tripling penalty of the actual $218.5m. verdict under the anti-terrorism laws governing the case.
The suit, brought forward by 10 American families who lost relatives in the terrorist attacks, featured a host of all-star witnesses, including top PLO official Hanan Ashrawi, former top IDF intelligence and military prosecution officials, and the current head of the PA’s “CIA.”
It also featured heart-wrenching testimony from the families of victims, like Chana Goldberg, who brought the jury to tears talking about the breakdown of her family following the murder of her father, Scott.
“The defendants have already been boasting that they will appeal the decision and we will never collect on the judgment – but we will go to the end of the Earth to collect it,” said Shurat Hadin’s Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, one of the plaintiffs’ lead lawyers.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said the verdict is first and foremost a moral victory for Israel and victims of terrorism.
“The court’s decision confirms what anyone who is familiar with the events in Israel in the beginning of the 2000s knows, but many in the world did not want to admit because of hypocrisy, foreign interests, or pure anti-Semitism,” he stated.
Liberman called the verdict a “wake-up call” for the Palestinians and their supporters around the world, who he said should now realize that terrorism is an integral part of the Palestinian Authority’s makeup.
Bayit Yehudi said that “the federal court in New York understood what the Israeli Left should have figured out years ago: The Palestinian Authority, PLO and their leaders encourage terrorism and are not men of peace.”
The plaintiffs argued that a large volume of PA employees, including policemen and commanders, were previously convicted by Israel for having part in terrorist attacks in Israel, including the six attacks from 2001 to 2004, and should therefore be found guilty in the civil case in New York.
Thirty-three people were murdered in these attacks, and hundreds were wounded.
“This historic verdict against the defendants will not bring back these families’ loved ones nor heal the physical and psychological wounds inflicted upon them,” Darshan- Leitner said, “but it truly is an important measure of justice and closure for them after their long years of tragic suffering and pain.”
She added, “We started out more than a decade ago with the intent of making the defendants pay for their terrorist crimes against innocent civilians and letting them know that there will eventually be a price to be paid for sending suicide bombers onto our buses and into our cafes.”
The plaintiffs’ lead trial lawyer, Kent Yalowitz of Arnold & Porter, said, “The message is clear. If you kill or injure Americans overseas, you can expect the long arm of American law to follow you and bring you to justice. Justice includes justice against those who send terrorists.”
Yalowitz continued: “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.”
The plaintiffs said they had “proven to the court that the systematic suicide bombings and shootings were perpetrated pursuant to [PLO leader] Yasser Arafat’s official policy of unleashing criminal violence against civilians in Israel.”
Going forward, Yalowitz said, “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.”
“I am truly privileged to have had the opportunity to represent these amazing families and join them in their quest for justice against those who have devastated their lives forever,” Yalowitz concluded.
The PLO and the Palestinian Authority expressed “deep disappointment” over the decision.
Mahmoud Khalifa, Palestinian deputy minister of information, said the charges made against the PLO and the PA are baseless.
He said that the US federal court in New York ignored the legal precedent set time and again by other US courts – including a ruling last week by a federal judge in Washington DC that established that US localities are not the proper jurisdiction for such a hearing.
“We will appeal this decision and we are confident that we will prevail,” Khalifa said in a first response to the verdict. “We have faith in the US legal system and are certain about our common sense belief and our strong legal standing.”
The case is “just the latest attempt by hard-line anti-peace factions in Israel to use and abuse the US legal system to advance their narrow political and ideological agenda: to block the two-state solution, advance the illegal settlements in our land, and continue to attack and divert the PLO and PA’s limited resources from needed services and programs for our people,” he said.
The decision is a “tragic disservice to the millions of Palestinians who have invested in the democratic process and the rule of law in order to seek justice and redress their grievances, and to the international community which has invested so much in financial aid and political capital in a two-state solution in which the PLO and PA are paramount,” Khalifa said.
The Palestinian official said that the Palestinians will continue to combat extremism and violence and maintain a strong commitment to nonviolent resistance and international, legal political and moral redress.
“We stand ready to be a partner in peace and an unyielding advocate for the rights of our people,” he added.
The PA’s defense lawyers remained stoic throughout the reading of the verdict, though for each vote they lost on the jury’s list of issues, their faces grew harder, with lawyer Mark Rochon clasping his hands tightly in front of his face.
In closing statements last Thursday, Rochon said that he feared the jury would find his clients liable “because of who they are, not what they did or did not do.”
Rochon explained that if the jury just focused on the six incidents at issue in the case, “the PA and the PLO are not liable.”
With his central argument that the PA employees who had perpetrated terrorism were rogue operatives, he said, “Sometimes people who do terrible things work for the government.” But these are “things they did for their own reasons.”
A verdict against the defendants “would only damage the government and the PLO who do not deserve that.”
He had also attacked the plaintiffs’ IDF intelligence experts as biased and the IDF court judgments introduced against PA employees as unusable judgments by unjust occupation courts.
But Rochon’s spirited defense was not enough against the legal and emotional onslaught brought by the plaintiffs.
Almost every significant legal issue, including introducing IDF court judgments into evidence, which was not a given, went in the plaintiffs’ direction.
Yalowitz rebutted Rochon’s arguments on Thursday, declaring that the PA “didn’t have to pay terrorists if it didn’t want to.”
He referred to the Anti-Terrorism Act that was the basis of the civil damages case as created to hit “those who send terrorists where it hurts most – the wallet.”
Yalowitz also addressed the PA claim that it is a separate entity than the PLO, and that they could not be held liable for each other’s actions.
“If you’re a beat cop walking the streets,” Yalowitz said, “You fairly represent the NYPD.”
Yalowitz continued, “If you have a policy that says: If you commit a terrorist act, you keep your job,” get a promotion, and get paid while you’re in jail, “that says something about who you are and what you believe in.”
Regarding whether the PA’s support for the six terrorist attacks met the legal definition of “material support,” Yalowitz said that “the biggest support you can give is money and personnel and these guys gave both.”
Many had expected that the PA would try to avoid showing up for the case or settle quietly out of court as it has done until now in every similar case it did not defeat through early motions to dismiss.
The only bright spot for the PA was that the judgment was not the full $1 billion requested.
The judgment comes around half a year after the first anti-terrorism civil judgment of similar caliber rendered against Jordan’s giant Arab Bank last September.
That case still awaits a trial to set the damages amount, currently set for mid-May.Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.