Victims of Palestinian terror ask US not to hinder their cases

State Dept. weighing 'statement of interest' after PA complains payouts will drive it into bankruptcy.

terror attack 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
terror attack 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Terror victims from across the US and Israel came here this week to urge the Bush administration not to interfere with their multi-million-dollar lawsuits against the Palestine Liberation Organization. They left feeling they'd been listened to, but not necessarily heard. "I hope that they understand deeply now what we need from them, what we're going through, that we're seeking justice the way we're supposed to," said Shayna Elliot, one of more than 20 American victims of terror attacks and bereaved family members who met with officials at the State Department and Department of Justice on Wednesday and Thursday. They made the trip after learning that the State Department might submit a "statement of interest" at the urging of the PLO, telling the court that the Palestinians shouldn't have to pay out on the judgments delivered against them. The US government has until February 29 to decide whether it will get involved, an opportunity provided by a judge in one of the cases. The statement, which would officially be submitted by the Justice Department, could also take an entirely different position. "It's obscene that they would get in involved in our case," said Elliot, who was shot in the chest while waiting for a bus on Jerusalem's Jaffa Road in 2002. She lost a lung and suffers chronic pain. "It's obscene that they could be against the terror victims." Ahead of their visit, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters, "We are absolutely committed to defending the rights of our citizens. We are also fully committed to pursuing our national interest and defending our national interest. At this point, I don't have anything to offer in terms of a decision one way or another on this particular issue." A State Department spokesman would offer no further comment on the subject as of Friday. The cash-strapped Palestinians have argued that the lawsuits limit their ability to implement the reforms and local investment that the US administration is urging them to undertake, and would contradict America's own efforts to aid the Palestinian Authority in bolstering its presence in the West Bank and facilitating negotiations with Israel. While the Bush administration has long avoided entering into the fray of these lawsuits, brought by private citizens, the Palestinians have indicated they sense a shift in policy. "There has been a rethinking in the State Department that I wholeheartedly welcome," Afif Safieh, head of the PLO mission in Washington, told The Washington Post this week. He labeled the suits "politically and ideologically motivated to drive the Palestinian Authority into bankruptcy." The victims have brought the suits under the Antiterrorism Act of 1990, enabling such remedy and which is, indeed, designed to "hit terrorists where it hurts, their pockets," according to Senate testimony on the matter. Eight senators recently sent a letter to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging her not to get involved with the case. "We are concerned that as courts render judgments holding terrorists and sponsors of terrorist acts accountable under the ATA, political efforts to have our government intervene and unduly influence the courts may undermine verdicts imposed by independent arbiters," they wrote. "Accordingly, we would like to voice our opposition to any such course of action or other government interference with the victims' legal rights." Attorney David Strachman, who represents Elliot and many of the other victims who came to Washington this week, has so far won $288 million in damages from the PLO, but has yet to collect any money for his clients. He said a US government statement of interest against the judgments would "entirely undermine the purpose of the act and would defeat what the judicial branch did." He said the meetings with government officials this week were inconclusive. "They were unable to tell us that they were not going to support the PLO," he said. "We had 25 victims in the room, and they were unable to say they would support American citizens over a terrorist organization."