The first-ever trial in the US against the Palestinian Authority on terrorism charges kicked off on Tuesday over six attacks that took place in Jerusalem in 2002 and 2004, and could carry a billion-dollar price tag.
“More than a decade after these six horrific terrorist attacks left Americans dead or wounded, today marks the day that survivors brought the perpetrators to face justice,” plaintiffs’ lawyer Kent Yalowitz of the firm Arnold & Porter said.
Yalowitz said he would bring before the New York federal court “compelling evidence of how these brutal acts were carried out by officers and employees of the PA” with links “all the way up to then-PA president and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, to terrorist crimes committed against American citizens.”
The PA’s lawyers, Mark Rochon and Laura Ferguson of Miller & Chevalier, had no comment to the media.
The suit revolves around a January 22, 2002, assault rifle attack; suicide bombings on January 27, March 21 and June 19, 2002, and January 29, 2004; and an extra large-scale bombing on July 31, 2002, all of which took place in Jerusalem.
The families allege, in the words of US District Judge George B. Daniels, that the PLO carried out the acts to “terrorize, intimidate and coerce the civilian population of Israel into acquiescing to defendants’ political goals and demands and to influence the policy of the United States and Israeli governments in favor of accepting defendants’ political goals and demands.”
At press time Jerusalem-time, the defense had not yet made their opening statement, but later reports indicated that the defense denied all allegations claiming that though some individuals were PA employees, they had acted completely on their own and without orders from PA leaders.
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Dozens of survivors of the attacks may testify in the trial, which is expected to be emotionally explosive and could last three months.
“For the first time, the Palestinian Authority will have to defend its policy of terrorism and murder before a jury of 12 ordinary New York residents,” said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner of Shurat Hadin – Israel Law Center, which has shepherded the case since its inception. “We are all very determined that the evidence of the Palestinian Authority’s responsibility for the Hebrew University cafeteria bombing and other [second] intifada terrorist attacks targeting civilians will soon be presented to the jury.”
The trial comes at a bad time for the defense, with American public opinion extra sensitive to charges of terrorism with the brutal Paris killings and Boston Marathon bomber trial both unfolding in recent days.
Many view the case as an early fulfillment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s threat to go after the PA for terrorism in courts around the world in retaliation for the PA working to move against Israelis at the International Criminal Court.
As the trial began, observers were caught by surprise as most of the morning and part of the afternoon were spent fighting over last minute evidentiary issues and completing jury selection, which had started last week.
The courtroom was packed on a cold New York morning, with jackets and scarves piled high on a coat rack as lawyers bickered with the judge over last minute objections, focusing on what the plaintiffs’ attorneys could use as demonstrative evidence during witness testimony.
Yalowitz received the brunt of the judge’s scoldings.
“Whatever you think you have that they haven’t seen, you better show it to them,” Daniels said after Yalowitz asked for further clarification on a point.
Yalowitz countered that there would be no need “to waste the court’s time” if the PA’s lawyers would talk with him, and he accused the other side of “bamboozling the court” in its objections to some of the plaintiffs’ photos and PowerPoint shots.
After bickering at length over one point, the plaintiffs’ lawyers said they would meet with their opposite numbers to clear up some of the issues.
“You solve it, or I’ll solve it in 30 seconds,” the judge warned them.
The only respite from the squabbling came during the concluding round of jury selection as the nearly 50 potential jurors were led into the courtroom, filling the jury box and most of the galley, which the judge had cleared of family members, lawyers and journalists who packed up against the walls and windows looking out onto the skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan.
The judge selected 18 jurors for questioning, an array of mostly native New Yorkers including a watchmaker, several nurses and healthcare workers, and a few people with degrees in criminal justice.
After lawyers selected those they wanted eliminated, the judge dismissed six jurors, some of whom had visited Israel.
The resulting jury appeared to be a mix of mostly black and white men and women with a few Hispanics.
Most previous cases did not make it to trial for a variety of reasons, and this one could have been blocked until last week, when the US Supreme Court gave it the green light, rejecting an interim appeal by the PA to intervene and stop the trial.
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