Israelis sue banks who fund terror

Families of casualties in 2006 war take Lebanese banks in US to court for financing Hizbullah.

new york skyline 88 (photo credit:)
new york skyline 88
(photo credit: )
A group of Israelis who were wounded or lost relatives in the Second Lebanon War are suing five Lebanese banks that allegedly finance Hizbullah from the United States. The lawsuit was filed Thursday in a New York federal court against Fransabank, Lebanon Commerce Bank, Bank of Beirut, Banque Libano-Francaise, and MEAB (Middle East Africa Bank) and charges the banks with breaking rules of international law by providing financial services to Hizbullah, including its fundraising arm, the Islamic Resistance Support Organization. The families have accused each bank of maintaining correspondent dollar accounts in the US through which Hizbullah has received funding via wire transfers routed from New York. The plaintiffs are arguing that each bank assisted Hizbullah in its campaign of terror and violence directed against the state of Israel and the Jewish people by providing services to a terrorist organization whose conduct constitutes crimes against humanity and other clear violations of international law. Among the evidence presented in the claim is an IRSO fundraising form that gives donors the option of choosing between funding missiles or small arms. The total sum of damages sought will be determined by the court, but it is estimated to be no less than $100 million. Representing the some 50 Israelis filing the lawsuit is litigator Tab Turner of the New Jersey law firm Osen & Associate, who has won dozens of cases against automakers, including Ford Motor Company, and Israeli attorney Oren Gutterman, who specializes in tort law. Following the Second Lebanon War, Osen & Associate began looking into the channels used by the group to raise money internationally, said Gary Osen, the firm's lead lawyer. "It received the majority of funding from Iran, but it also operates a very active international fundraising network largely through the IRSO," he said. "Our goal was to attack the weak link, the commercial banks who facilitate wire transfers and provide the mechanism for international fundraising." Counterterrorism officials estimate that Hizbullah receives millions of dollars a year from international fundraising, in addition to the roughly $100m. it receives from Iran, though there are no "hard estimates," of their exact budget, Osen said. The lawsuit is intended to "curb the flow of money" to terror organizations through the international banking system, Gutterman said. "Our aim is to deter commercial banks from providing assistance to terrorists. Banks must understand that such activity will have a steep price," he said. The latest Hizbullah lawsuit is similar to the ongoing terrorism case of "Linde v. Arab Bank," which was filed by Osen & Associate in 2004 against Jordan's leading financial institution for allegedly supporting Palestinian terrorism on behalf of six families who were victims of terrorism in Israel. Together with two other law firms, the number of plaintiffs in the case as risen to nearly 50 American families with loved ones killed or wounded during the second intifada. Part of that suit alleged that Arab Bank knowingly provided banking and administrative services to charitable front organizations that are controlled and directed by terrorist organizations. Activities included collecting, transferring and laundering funds for those organizations through its New York branch, which enabled the groups to commit multiple acts of international terrorism. The suit was aimed at ebbing the flow of money to Palestinian terrorist organizations by extending legal liability beyond the hardcore terrorists themselves to the financial institutions that supposedly aid and abet their activities. The main difference between the 2004 suit and the one filed last week is that this latest lawsuit was filed on behalf of Israelis under the Alien Tort Claim Act, which enables United States federal courts, under certain circumstances, to hear cases of non-citizens relating to actions that constitute the violation of international law. The jurisdiction of the US Federal Court is valid when the defendant regularly conducts business in the United States or when some or all of the illegal conduct occurs in the United States. Such cases brought on behalf of non-citizens, however, face "greater hurdles" than those brought on behalf of Americans, said Osen. "We tell clients and plaintiffs to be prepared for a long process, but the law and facts of the case speak for themselves. In the end the factual allegations and evidence will determine the outcome. We wouldn't have brought it if we didn't think the claims are valid and that the court would recognize them." The lawsuit makes room for other banks to be added to the case, although it has not yet been determined which ones may be included.