Despite some recent wins, very few victims of terrorism or their families ever see most of the money from high-profile, big-payout victories awarded in US and Israeli courts from cases against the Palestinians, Iran and others.
That means the legal warriors fighting these battles, like Shurat Hadin-Israel Law Center, tend to tout intangible victories, such as they did years ago by scaring Iran out of the Italian banking system, even as the country barely escaped a lien.
The issue is back in the headlines after the Israeli Supreme Court ruled last week
that the Palestinian Authority must pay NIS 3m. in civil wrongful death damages to the family of Amos Montin, a Bezeq mechanic who was murdered in 2003.
In the potentially precedent-setting decision, the court explained that Amos Montin was murdered during the Second Intifada by a 15-and-a-half-year-old attacker who pointed the finger at the PA for brainwashing him into committing the murder at a PA-sponsored camp 10 days earlier.
The case could have implications for the Jerusalem District Court, which in July ruled against the PA for torturing 51 Palestinians, and in November ruled against it for the murder of three Israelis on Route 443.Last week’s judgment is still new
, but lawyers involved in the case that led to the November ruling – which included a judgment of NIS 62m. – felt clearly boosted by the court’s action, as they face an almost certain appeal by the PA to the Israeli Supreme Court.
And yet, will all of this be for naught if there is nothing and no one from whom to collect? If the plaintiffs try to collect from the PA, the funds of which the Israeli government sometimes holds, will the government allow the collection and risk a diplomatic explosion? There is also a collection problem in famed US anti-terrorism cases.
There is a long history of Iran, Syria, North Korea and Sudan simply ignoring lawsuits, and plaintiffs being unable to collect on the hundred-million-dollar awards from judgments against those nations.
There are also almost-wins, which later get knocked down or are at least put on hold.
The most notable is Shurat Hadin’s February 2015 win of $650m.
judgment against the PA. That ruling was reversed in August 2016, and is likely to be on appeal to the US Supreme Court for another six to 12 months.
In his book, Lawfare. Law as a Weapon of War, Orde F. Kittrie detailed how anti-terrorism lawsuits put pressure on rogue regimes and terrorist groups to find new ways of transferring money. But he also noted a 2009 decision authored by US Federal Court Judge Royce Lamberth in which the jurist complained about uncollected judgments.
In that decision, Kittrie quotes Lamberth as writing that Iran had only $45m. in US assets with which to satisfy $10b. in judgments.
Some progress has been made in such cases by using more creative approaches in classifying what can constitute assets against which collections can be made.
By July 2015, such creativity revealed an additional $2b. in available Iranian assets.
Shurat Hadin has confirmed that some of that money has been paid to the hundreds of plaintiffs in the case, some of whom were clients of Shurat Hadin, among others represented by many law firms. Those payments went mostly to victims of the 1983 Iran-Hezbollah attack against US Marines in Beirut.
But even that additional $2b., which was collected from a total $43.5b. in judgments against Iran, was considered an unusually good collection result.
Kittrie also wrote that one of the first major US cases, Boim v. the Holy Land Foundation, which went after Hamas financiers, led to collections of only a fraction of the $156m. judgment in that case.
According to sources, the BNP Paribas and HSBC settlements with the US government also led to payoffs of around 10% of the judgments for some related victims of terrorism and their families.
The September 2014 verdict against Arab Bank is probably the most noticeable exception, in which a high percentage pay-off of around $1b. was reached in a settlement. But even that payment will be delayed due to a pending appeal to the US Supreme Court.
Plaintiff’s lawyer Gary Osen said that oral arguments to the US Supreme Court were made in May, but he did not want to estimate when a ruling would be issued.
And this is regarding attacks which took place between 2001 and 2004.
That means that almost any case involving a payoff, the payoff may come only after 10 or more years of litigation.
The advantage for cases tried the US is the much wider range of assets that can be searched for collection. The disadvantage is that it can be daunting to find those assets.
In Israel, by contrast, there are few if any PA assets. But Israel does collect and sometimes holds hundreds of millions of shekels in customs taxes it collects for the PA.
In the case of Yaron and Efrat Ungar – who were killed by a terrorist as they drove to Beit Shemesh in 1996 – sources confirmed that a combination of registering the $116m. judgment in the US and in Israel, and seizing some of the customs tax funds, eventually led to a settlement with the PA in 2011.
Shurat Hadin took a broad view and said, “None of the judgments get paid in full, but a majority [of clients, possibly around 60%] got some money.”
The Justice Ministry declined to take a position on the use of customs taxes to pay the plaintiffs in last week’s case for the judgment the Israeli court made against the PA.
After all of the pressure these types of cases generate against terrorists, in most instances, getting more than a fraction of any judgments in Israel or the US as of December 2017, is still a longshot.