Battling Islamic terror in the courts

Lawyer Nitsana Darshan-Leitner directs her campaign on behalf of the victims of terror at those who bankroll the perpetrators.

Powerhouse lawyer Nitsana Darshan-Leitner. (photo credit: COURTESY SHURAT HADIN)
Powerhouse lawyer Nitsana Darshan-Leitner.
ON JANUARY 13 in New York, jury selection began in the trial of Sokolow vs. the Palestinian Authority (PA), more than 10 years after the seventh of a series of terrorist atrocities in Israel the prosecution alleges were carried out by Palestinians under the auspices of the PLO, Hamas, and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. The prosecution charges that the PA is liable and should pay around $1 billion in damages to the victims and their families. Thirty-three people died and more than 450 were injured as the result of devastating suicide bombings and shootings.
Among those who have fought hard to have the case against the PA heard is Nitsana Darshan-Leitner of Israel’s Shurat HaDin law center. Through her organization, Darshan-Leitner has waged a war on terror via the international courts and has achieved notable successes against the Central Bank of Iran, the Lebanese-Canadian Bank and others, which has seen some $150 million so far recovered and passed on directly to the victims of terror and their families.
She has had over $600 million in terror assets frozen in recent years by the US courts in judgments against various sponsors of terrorism, a sum, according to Shurat HaDin’s figures, more than four times the amount frozen by the US government through the same courts on the grounds of confiscation of terror assets. The assets were headed for Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah, and would have contributed to funding further terror attacks against Israeli targets.
Most recently, she had a $700 million building on 5th Avenue in New York – owned by an Iranian bank that was judged to be an instrument of the Iranian Republic – confiscated by the US government as the result of a court judgment in the US against Iran. The proceeds from the sale of the building will go toward compensation for the victims of Iranian-sponsored terrorism.
IN RESPONSE to a question whether the recent Paris terror attacks have caused Darshan- Leitner to fear for her life, she smiles and tells The Jerusalem Report, “I don’t worry about my safety – certainly not here in Israel.
It’s different when I go abroad, though.
I have some security arrangements in place when I travel overseas.”
Having seen numerous images of her on television and the print media, I find the powerhouse lawyer more slightly built than I had anticipated. Married to fellow lawyer Aviel Leitner, she is mother to six children – aged between 6 and 16 – including 9-year-old triplets. For most mothers just dealing with six children on a day-to-day basis would be more than a handful, but she admits that she works 24/7. “If I’m not physically at the office or pursuing cases here and there, I’m still thinking about my work almost every waking minute,” she relates.
She acknowledges that being away from home so often can be challenging. Her parents – who came to Israel from Iran shortly after the creation of the Jewish state – offer tremendous support to her children, without which she acknowledges she wouldn’t be able to manage. Her regular trips overseas were particularly hard for her children when they were younger.
“When your small child is looking out of the window and asking if Mummy is in each passing car (when Mummy is actually thousands of miles away working in the US), it can be difficult. Thankfully, most of my children are now old enough to understand what I do, and are even proud to have a ‘famous’ mum.”
As a child herself, the Orthodox “but not ultra-Orthodox” woman, who has gained such a formidable reputation in the legal profession, appeared destined for a very different career – as a classical pianist. “I played piano for 12 years,” she recalls. “I had a Russian teacher and played professionally in classical concerts. Unfortunately, I didn’t continue because I was conscripted to the IDF [where she worked as an ambulance dispatcher], after which I went to study law at Bar-Ilan University, where I got married in the first year. I graduated, did my apprenticeship, completed my MBA at Manchester University’s course here in Israel, and then had my first child.”
Once qualified, the young lawyer, apart from regular work “began taking pro bono cases on behalf of all types of victims. I represented the belly dancer who was raped by the Egyptian ambassador; I represented extradition cases of Jews who were here in Israel and were extradited for acts in the US and Canada, as I believe they should be. I represented women who were raped in mental institutions; there was the scandal at Abu Kabir in which body parts were sold, or exchanged, etc. So, when the second intifada broke out, it was very natural for me to take cases on behalf of terror victims, seeing if we could sue those who perpetrated the attacks.”
“In 2000, nobody knew there was the option of suing a terrorist organization. There were no precedents. As a matter of fact, we were approached later on by a group who came to Israel and wanted to learn how to sue the IRA Irish militants. They watched what we do in our cases.”
DARSHAN-LEITNER explained to terror victims or their families that there was a way to fight back through the courts. Most people agreed to have her act on their behalf and the young mother pursued the perpetrators through the courts.
“Some of them agreed because they needed the money, kids had lost their parents, someone had lost their spouse. They needed to do it. Some of them did not want the money – they saw it as blood money – but wanted to punish the terror organizations.”
Her first case was the infamous lynching of Israeli soldiers in Ramallah in October 2000 carried out by Palestinian policemen. Approaching 15 years later, that case has yet to be settled. She makes no apology for taking cases against enemies of Israel, cases, which many times, even the Israeli government itself, often for political or diplomatic reasons, is not willing to openly pursue.
There have been some notable cases that have run contrary to the government line and created much publicity – most recently the case against the Bank of China that was brought in the US by victims of acts committed against Israeli targets by terror organizations, which had received their funds through Bank of China money transfers.
Though the original files containing detailed information of the Chinese bank’s wrongdoing were passed on to Darshan- Leitner by Israeli officials in 2008, she says she was under no illusions that the government would see the case through to its conclusion.
“I’d had previous cases where they backed off,” she recalls. “You know, it’s a state, and as a state their interests change from time to time. Sometimes the PA is their enemy, sometimes it’s their ally. Sometimes Arafat was persona non grata, sometimes he was the only one to negotiate with.”
A compelling case was built by Shurat HaDin and a team of US lawyers against the Bank of China, which promised massive ramifications, especially once the key witness, a senior Israeli official, would take the stand in New York to give damning testimony.
But, out of the blue, reportedly on the specific instruction of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who was soon to make a first, much sought-after, official trip to China), the witness was denied permission to testify on the grounds of “national security.”
The decision caused outrage in many quarters since the case, which was set to strike a telling blow against the funding of international terrorism, was effectively undermined by the very people who had instigated it.
“The case against Bank of China is totally pro-security, totally pro-fighting terrorism. It is to block money that is going through the Bank of China,” Darshan-Leitner explains.
“And even though there are politicians in the government of Israel who call to obstruct the case and take the position that they have to be pro-Chinese now and we should leave the bank alone, I don’t agree. I don’t agree because I know that the security services are behind me. I know there are good reasons why we initiated the case and we have to continue to the end.”
In answer to a question, she agrees that she had been more than disappointed at the actions of the Prime Minister. “From Netanyahu, from the one whose agenda is to fight terrorism, sometimes it is all about interests, sometimes even personal interests, I’m sorry to tell.” She casts me a glance. “I don’t know how much weight you can give to the trip to China, to the Israeli economic interests in China. Honestly, it was telling that it happened right before the visit, without consulting us. It could have been done in a way that we would have served the interests of the fight against terrorism, and in a way that also served the new interests that Israel has found in China.”
“When I start a case, I cannot drop it, change it or leave the victims because suddenly China has become a friend of Israel,” she explains, clearly frustrated with a situation that has also upset many in the US. “The judge herself felt she wanted to hear the case that started in 2008. And the witness himself wanted to testify. You cannot abandon the victims. You cannot let China go without paying.”
Just days after we discussed the Bank of China case and a few days prior to the case against the PA opening in New York, Netanyahu arrived at the scene of the murder of four Jews by an Islamic State terrorist at a kosher supermarket in Paris. “If the world does not unite now against terrorism,” he declared, “the blows that terrorism has struck here will increase in a magnitude that can scarcely be conceived.”
One extraordinary aspect of the case that so shook up the People’s Republic of China and, eventually, senior Israeli figures, according to Darshan-Leitner, is that despite being exposed as having earlier knowingly sent money to Islamist terrorist groups, in 2012, a money changer from the West Bank was indicted for wiring money to Gaza through the Bank of China. “They clearly had not learned their lesson,” she says.
“I think that after this episode Israel will not allow anyone to be a witness in such cases,” Darshan-Leitner sighs.
So what does that say about Israel’s much publicized role of being on the front line in the war against radical Islamic terrorism? “It means that Israel is dropping a very, very important tool in the war against terror financing. That’s a big mistake. Not only I think that, but also the security people that I am in touch with say that. The unit that was created specifically to fight terror financing is not active anymore and that, too, harms the fight against terrorism.”
Darshan-Leitner was referring to the Harpoon special intelligence unit that was created by former Mossad chief Meir Dagan. She hopes the unit will be revived after having been mothballed some time ago. The unit, she suggests, did things that neither the IDF nor the security services could do, using lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits to achieve their goals.
One example she gave was when Germany’s Deutsche Bank knowingly held a billion-dollar bank account owned by the Central Bank of Iran at a time prior to financial sanctions being placed place against Tehran. The Harpoon unit believed the money was being used to fund various Iranian-backed terror groups and asked Deutsche Bank to close the account. It refused. Then Harpoon returned to the German bank and explained that there were lawyers with judgments of hundreds of millions of dollars against Iran who were keen to go after banks holding funds on Iran’s behalf. Deutsche Bank hastily reconsidered and closed the Iranian account within a month.
“You can see that the legal threat is a really effective tool,” Darshan-Leitner explains.
The case against Jordan-based Arab Bank is another high profile prosecution that Shurat HaDin, together with American colleagues, is pursuing even though, again, it has ruffled feathers among politicians who are reluctant to see any change in the status quo between Israel, Jordan and the US. The case centers around funds handled by the Arab Bank that it is alleged were knowingly transferred to finance terror attacks that killed many Israelis and some Americans, and injured many more. Some observers suggest that if Arab Bank is found guilty, the knock-on effect could trigger the collapse of the Jordanian economy and jeopardize US-Jordanian security cooperation, as well as the peace deal between Jordan and Israel.
AMONG THE latest cases Darshan-Leitner is pursuing, is one citing Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal for war crimes for the execution of 39 Palestinians during the recent war in Gaza, while PA President Mahmoud Abbas – who set the PA on course to join the International Criminal Court (ICC) on April 1 – and three other leading Palestinian figures from Fatah, are cited for overseeing the indiscriminate launch of rockets against Israeli civilians. She believes Abbas’s move to join the ICC is a huge tactical error.
“[Abbas] knows he will be going down if he joins the court, but he doesn’t care as long as everyone goes down with him. He believes he can achieve more by joining the court and indicting Israel for war crimes than he can by negotiation. It’s a fatal mistake.”
So, in the wake of the recent Paris attacks, does Darshan-Leitner believe Europe has finally woken up and now understands the type of terror she is trying to combat by cutting off its financial supply lines? Her answer came without hesitation.
“When was the US open to the fight against terrorism? Only after 9/11. Unfortunately, perhaps Europe has not yet been hit by a significant enough terrorist attack. In the US, people tried to bomb the World Trade Center twice and they had terror attacks here and there before 9/11. It was only after 9/11 that the reality of the fight against terror finally hit them.”
To press home the point, she concludes, “Right now, if you want to enforce your judgments against Iran or Syria in Europe, you’ll still have a door closed in your face.”
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist. His website is and he can be followed on Twitter @paul_alster