When attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner was a law student at Bar-Ilan University in the mid-1990s, she got her first taste of arguing a case before the Supreme Court. It was an experience that would shape the course of her history - and career - in ways she couldn't have anticipated. The petition she filed was on behalf of the victims of the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking, during which a wheelchair-bound Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, was tossed overboard. It was a request to forbid its mastermind, Muhammad (Abu) Abbas, from entering Israel under the Oslo Accords.
The petition was rejected. But the sense of satisfaction Darshan-Leitner felt, both as a human-rights activist on campus and as an aspiring litigator, sowed the seeds for the non-profit firm - Shurat Hadin, Israel Law Center - she would come to establish in 2003.
Modeled after the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, a human rights organization that bankrupts groups like the neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan through civil suits, Shurat Hadin came into being on the heels of the second Palestinian intifada, launched in 2000.
"We thought that we could go after terrorists in the same way that the Southern Poverty Law Center was going after racists," says Darshan-Leitner, during an hour-long interview at her Ramat Gan office.
But the field was completely new here, she explains, which is why she had to scour the American legal system and study its legislation regarding terrorist groups and states that sponsor them.
It is also why, at first, Darshan-Leitner had to initiate the suits, by approaching victims who were unaware that such a recourse even existed, and "teach them they had legal rights."
Hundreds of pro-bono cases later, and no longer able to sustain the financial burden of court appearances, trips abroad, medical evaluations and other costs involved in this particular form of retribution, she founded Shurat Hadin with the aid of donations. And it is through philanthropy that the ardent 35-year-old advocate and married mother of six, including a set of triplets, continues to pursue her passion for making terrorists pay.
What lawsuits are you currently working on?
There are so many, chief among them right now a suit against Egypt - on behalf of the residents of Sderot - over its assisting Hamas. Its assistance takes the form of enabling the smuggling of weapons and money into Gaza, and the aiding of terrorists from Gaza to go, via Egypt, to Iran and Syria for training, and to return from there, all this through the tunnels.
Is it actual assistance, or the turning of a blind eye to the smuggling of arms and passage of terrorists?
In totalitarian countries like Egypt, you can't move a paper clip without the knowledge and cooperation of the leadership. And in this case, there are videotapes of Palestinians and Egyptians together moving goods through the tunnels. Suddenly now we see that Egypt is capable of stopping the smuggling when it chooses to do so.
Is it your impression that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak supports Hamas's endeavors, or that he is cooperating so as not to ire the Muslim Brotherhood?
Egypt was never Israel's friend. Even the peace accord was arrived at out of necessity - to give Egypt 30 years of quiet, to secure American aid and for the Sinai, of course. This lack of friendship is expressed in Mubarak's behavior. He hasn't once stepped foot in this country [other than to attend Yitzhak Rabin's funeral], for example. The point is that he has no interest in curbing Hamas. On the contrary.
But Hamas is connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, a threat to his own regime. Is he not caught between having to appease the terror group, on the one hand, and fulfilling commitments to the United States on the other?
It's true that he has his own war with the Muslim Brotherhood, and it's true that he has to keep the US on his side. But in parallel, he encourages Hamas. He is also hoping to force Israel to permit Egypt to station many more troops in Sinai than was agreed to under Camp David, before he even lifts a finger to police the border.
And this is the basis of your lawsuit?
Yes. It is being conducted at the District Court in Beersheba. The district attorney was asked to present his opinion on whether Egypt is protected by "sovereign-state immunity" from the suit. And he's having a hard time determining whether it is or not in this case. On the one hand, Israel's position - as was expressed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni - is that Egypt is abetting the smuggling of arms. If so, it is abetting terrorism - and terrorism, as well as other violations of fundamental international law, does not enjoy sovereign-state immunity. On the other hand, Israel is in a bind, because at the moment, Egypt is a kind of partner in the cease-fire arrangement.
Are any of your lawsuits less open to interpretation?
Yes, another lawsuit on behalf of the residents of Sderot is being conducted in the US, against the Bank of China. According to the complaint, a Hamas terrorist named Saed Shurafa, stationed in Beijing, has an account in the Bank of China. Each month, $100,000 is transferred from Hamas headquarters in Syria to the Los Angeles branch of the Bank of China. From there it is transferred to Shurafa's account in Beijing. As soon as the money arrives in his account, Shurafa withdraws it, and transfers it to his brother in Gaza.
Our suit is against the Bank of China in Los Angeles for aiding and abetting terrorism.
If you win the suit, will the Bank of China have to pay damages to the Sderot residents?
Yes, to those named as plaintiffs in the suit. Cases like this cannot be filed as class-action suits. Anyway, we are representing most of the families in which a member was killed or wounded critically during the period 2004-2006.
In the US, courts tend to award a set sum for such things - $10 million for the loss of a spouse, a parent or a child, and $5 million for the loss of a sibling. The courts also award severe punitive damages.
In the event that you win, will the bank really pay up?
Yes, because it won't be able to continue operating in America if it doesn't honor a verdict handed down by a federal court. The judgment will be against the bank itself, and we therefore can go after its assets.
Is it different for organizations operating outside the US?
Yes. Those neither care about nor honor American verdicts. What we do with them is take a verdict obtained in the US, and chase them to the Western countries where they operate - countries that do honor American verdicts.
This brings me to another point about terrorism-related lawsuits filed in the US. Unlike in any other country in the world, where all states enjoy sovereign immunity, in the US you can file a lawsuit against a state that is recognized by the State Department as a supporter of terrorism. This enabled us to file several suits against Iran following Hamas terrorist attacks, which resulted in our being awarded hundreds of millions of dollars. Iran, of course, did not honor this verdict. But one day we discovered that Iran's national oil company had a bank account in Rome in which there was $500 million. So we took our American verdicts to Italy, and asked that they be implemented there. We also requested that a lien be put on the account. The Italian court complied, and summoned the sides for a hearing.
Not only did lawyers defending Iran show up, but representatives from the Vatican, the Italian Foreign Ministry, the Iranian national oil company and all the banks that worked with Iran at that period did, as well. There were about 20 lawyers there! They had two claims. The first was that a verdict against Iran cannot be implemented through the assets of one of its national companies - because it's not the same body. [She laughs.] The second, even more original, claim was that they weren't summoned legally.
So we brought in an international law expert to prove that in a country like Iran there is no distinction between the government and its national companies - and therefore the verdict can be implemented - and also that the suit was served legally. But the Italian court, wanting to be on the safe side, requested that the suit be served again, and removed the lien from the bank account. An hour later, the money was moved from Rome to Thailand.
Now, it's true that we didn't receive the money. But our victory lay in the fact that since then, Iran has not resumed keeping money in banks in Italy.
We repeated this same process in other countries and places known to have Iranian money to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in their banks. In each case, Iran either moved the money to Asia or took it back home. Now, there's not much Iran can do with that money at home. And its inability to have money in European banks limits its trade in euros. It can't give a letter of credit to companies from which it wants to purchase goods. Nor can it trade in dollars, because of US sanctions. All that remains for it to do is use either its own currency or currency that is not considered "hard" and universally accepted, such as that of Thailand or Singapore. This makes it difficult for Iran in many respects, among them in its ability to develop its nuclear program. It also makes it difficult to transfer funds to the Palestinian Authority.
But doesn't Iran only transfer cash to the PA?
This touches on an interesting effect our lawsuits have had. In 2004, we began filing suits against banks that assist terrorist organizations. As a result, many banks in the Western world completely stopped transferring money to organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and stopped opening accounts for charitable organizations identified with terrorist organizations. This led to the inability of terror groups in the PA to use the banking system. This is why they resort to smuggling cash in suitcases through the tunnels.
And herein lies an absurdity. They manage to smuggle dollars into Gaza, but the currency in Gaza is the shekel. And the population there can't do anything with dollars - particularly when they are not in small denominations. In other words, you can't pay the grocer with a $100 bill.
And here, unfortunately and astonishingly, Israel comes into the picture - and changes those dollars into shekels for the Palestinians. It's absolutely unbelievable. The Bank of Israel has made itself a central component in Hamas's money-laundering operation, by assisting in regularly exchanging its dollars for shekels.
Why does Israel do that?
Political considerations. I'll show you the letter the state wrote in response to our petition to the High Court of Justice on this issue. [Here she reads from an official document]: "Providing the corresponding services to the banks in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, in addition to the transfer of cash to the Gaza Strip, are complex issues connected to the... stability of the Palestinian economy, Israel's foreign relations and various other security aspects... which involve weighty political considerations."
If you understand what's behind this, you tell me. But here it is in black and white. And our petition to the High Court is against the Bank of Israel and the defense minister to stop transferring money to Gaza - to stop laundering Hamas dollars.
It's true that the last of these money transfers took place a few days before Operation Cast Lead was launched. But they haven't said they will stop the practice. What they say is that, at the moment, it's on hold.
You say that even when the victims of terror don't receive money awarded to them, the victory lies in Iran's being hindered by your actions. Do your clients feel the same way?
It varies from victim to victim. There are those who enter into these suits for the compensation they need badly for rehabilitation and such - which is why they are willing to go through such a long and grueling process for it. But many others do it for moral and ideological reasons alone. They are not willing to be victims any longer. They want to fight back. And they take advantage of this process to strike back at those who harmed them. One father of a girl killed in a terrorist attack - a doctor at Hadassah Hospital - told me: "If I had a rifle, I would shoot those terrorists. But I don't have one, and anyway, I'm not sure I'd be able to take the law into my own hands. This is my only way of fighting my daughter's killers."
Then there are those who were hesitant to file a suit against the PA, because they didn't want to give it any recognition. And when you sue an entity, it is as though you are giving it a sort of legal status.
But have any of these victims of terrorism actually received money as a result of the lawsuits?
Absolutely. For example, there was more than $5 million in a bank account in the US, left over from the period of the Islamic revolution. In that account there was $5 million, and we managed to seize it for our clients. There was also a house in Texas, which had been purchased prior to the revolution, for the son of the shah, who went to the US to learn to be a pilot [she laughs]. After that, ownership of the house went to the Islamic government in Teheran. We had a lien put on it, sold it off and then gave the money from the sale to the victims. We've received more than $20 million for the victims from terror groups to date.
Still, whatever the outcome of each individual suit, ultimately the goal is to take money away from terrorists, so they don't have the means to kill. We are trying to show that private citizens can play a role in combating the terror groups and securing a measure of justice for the victims.