A family’s journey towards justice

With federal juries proving that even foreign governments and multi-billion-dollar financial institutions can be held responsible, there’s a developing trend of rulings in favor of terror victims.

Defense attorney Mark Rochon makes his opening statement to the court. (photo credit: JANE ROSENBERG)
Defense attorney Mark Rochon makes his opening statement to the court.
(photo credit: JANE ROSENBERG)
They each described the explosion differently.
A whoosh. A boom. A horrific blast. A muffled bang. But the Sokolow family – American tourists chatting on a busy shopping street in Jerusalem – all say they knew immediately what had happened, as the blast blew them off their feet.
The mother, Rena Sokolow, was thrown into the air. “It kept spinning and spinning, and I kept saying to myself, ‘I can’t believe this is happening, I just can’t believe this is happening.’” The sound of sizzling. Cracking glass. A burning taste. The world became a thick gray cloud.
Suddenly, Rena was on the ground; she felt an awful pain in her leg. “It was going in all different directions,” she remembered. “Blood everywhere; the bone sticking out.” She couldn’t see her daughters. She couldn’t see her husband.
She looked to her left: The severed head of a woman lay a meter away. “I just kept trying to stay conscious,” Rena recalled.
And then, a young girl was standing over her; the child’s glasses were mangled on her bloodied face. It was her youngest daughter, Jamie. Not wanting her 12-year- old to panic, Rena told her again and again, “It will be okay, it will be okay,” as her leg continued to bleed onto the pavement.
The Jaffa Road bombing on January 27, 2002, killed one and wounded more than 150, continuing an escalation in violence that became known as the second intifada. The first intifada began in 1987 and continued until 1993, but the second one was marked by the prominence of “martyrdom operations” – suicide attacks.
The number of Americans caught in these attacks would provide the basis for a slowly mounting wave of lawsuits against institutions that provided support to the attackers.
The Sokolows’ case was the first time the Palestinian Authority would be tried by a US jury for terrorism.
SIX MONTHS before the attack, the Sokolow family was at home in their native Long Island – and Elana, the eldest daughter, was not happy.
Her parents, she thought, were being overcautious.
They were stopping her from joining all her friends on the trip she’d been waiting for all through high school – Rena and Mark Sokolow didn’t want her to take a year of study abroad in Israel.
Originally, they had wanted her to go. But as Elana was celebrating her 18th birthday at camp earlier that month, a bomb exploded in Jerusalem, ripping apart a Sbarro pizzeria frequented by students on a busy shopping area on Jaffa Road. The explosion killed 15 and wounded 130.
Elana understood her parents’ worries – but she had to go.
“We basically went through three days of hell in our house,” Mark recounted. All the mothers and fathers in their Orthodox community were having similar problems. Recent high-school graduates traditionally traveled to Israel for a year before college to connect with their faith, exploring the Holy Land for themselves. But with a second intifada declared in Israel, there could be more attacks killing families, tourists and students in public places.
“Ultimately, we decided to change our minds,” Mark said. Swayed by repeated assurances from the school, her parents made a decision to let her go to Israel with her friends at the end of August.
“We just felt we should not let any of these terror attacks stop us from having her do what was best for her,” Rena said.
A FEW weeks after his daughter left for Israel, Mark sipped his coffee and reviewed documents on the 38th floor of his Manhattan law office. He had arrived early that day, well before 9 a.m.
Around 8:50 a.m., the building shook. “My first thought was the window-washing machines,” he said.
“But it wasn’t that.”
Dust and papers, one after another, fluttered by the large glass windows. “I saw stuff just fly past my window.” It reminded him of ticker tape; not knowing what it was, he sat back down at his desk.
A couple of minutes later, someone came running down the hall, saying, “Tower One is on fire! Everybody evacuate.”
It was September 11, 2001.
Stopping at the concourse level, Mark looked out the window at the North Tower. Dark, billowing clouds and fire flowed out of the gaping hole in One World Trade Center. Moments later, the building above them shook violently. Everyone ran.
Mark caught the first train out of town and looked back at the city. He could see a hole in the sky where his office had been; where he had his coffee just two hours before, there was only an ominous gray plume. The towers were gone.
In Israel, Elana was frantically dialing her cellphone from her dorm room. She had reached her mom, but neither of them knew whether her dad had escaped.
Later that morning, Elana reached her father. “Dad, you were concerned about sending me to Israel,” he remembers his eldest saying. “Look what happened in New York.”
“Those words really hit me.” Mark said. “Terror could strike just as easily in New York as it could in Jerusalem.”
MONTHS AFTER 9/11, the Sokolows found themselves packing to visit Elana in Jerusalem. They hadn’t originally planned to bring the whole family, but it was their youngest daughter Jamie’s bat-mitzva year, and they weren’t going to let terrorists dictate their vacation plans.
They joined a structured family tour of Israel organized by Elana’s school that included snorkeling, scuba diving and hiking as well as the typical tourist spots. The early mornings on the 10-day tour left them weary but happy.
They had one last day in Jerusalem before the 12-hour flight home; as any preteen might, Jamie was yearning for one souvenir in particular – and she couldn’t leave Israel without it.
She wanted a pair of Naot sandals, with the closed toe. “I had my heart set on a maroon color that most stores didn’t carry,” Jamie recalled. They hadn’t found them in any of the malls they’d checked thus far, so this was her last chance, as they didn’t sell them in America. “It’s the sort of thing that if you go to Israel, you come back with them.”
Not wanting to disappoint his youngest, Mark found out about a great shoe store on Jaffa Road. The middle child, Lauren, who sometimes felt ganged up on by her sisters, didn’t want to go. There had been a shooting on Jaffa Road five days earlier, and she was nervous. But they managed to coax her into it.
“I don’t know, we thought that if there was a shooting on January 22 on Jaffa Road, maybe we’ll be all right there on January 27,” explained Mark.
Elana, who had class that day, would join them afterwards.
When they reached the shoe store, Jamie was thrilled.
They had the exact pair she wanted, and she might even have swayed her father into buying a pair for himself as well. As the four chatted casually outside the shop, a Palestinian paramedic approached the shoe store carrying a backpack.
MARK SOKOLOW felt the earth shaking. He was on the ground, in pain, but it seemed he was alive. He saw dust flying though the air, and thought, “I can’t believe this is happening.”
He stood, mustering his best broken Hebrew and shouting, “My wife and two daughters!” He limped down Jaffa Road, repeating the only words he could think to say: “My wife and two daughters – I have to find them!” But he couldn’t.
Someone walked him to a hospital around the corner.
It was chaos in the ER as he was led down a hallway. As he was hurried along, he saw a little girl, stripped, her face covered in blood from shrapnel – almost unrecognizable.
“That could be Jamie,” he thought.
It was.
Elana immediately rushed out of class. The principal had just taken a headcount and told them about the bombing. She was nervous; she had felt the same way less than a year earlier when she heard about the World Trade Center.
She sat on her dorm room bed, dialing and redialing her parents. She called again and again, hoping they just couldn’t reach their phones, terrified what might have happened, when the principal showed up at her door.
“Elana,” he said. “I need to talk to you in my office about something serious.”
They all had burst eardrums, burns and shrapnel wounds. Jamie needed surgery to remove all the glass from her eye, and the doctors barely saved Rena’s leg.
Mark and Lauren needed surgery to repair their eardrums.
But at least they were all alive.
Elana stayed in Israel to continue her studies, and the rest of the family returned home to New York.
Rena, once the CEO of the Sokolow household, was reduced to sitting on the couch; she had to scoot down the stairs on her backside and needed a walker for months.
She also had to tell dozens of family members that she couldn’t cook for the Passover Seders that year. “I would start crying in the middle of the street,” Rena recollected, “because I couldn’t do what I needed to do for my family.”
Mark struggled to get back into his work in corporate law. He was suddenly juggling doctors’ appointments and the basics of running the house. “It was always on your mind, pounding in your head. It’s hard to focus, to manage it all.”
And while one might assume this is the part of the story when Mark began planning revenge against anyone who supported his family’s attacker, he says that’s far from the truth.
“I’m generally the person who says, ‘I’m not suing anybody.’ You don’t have to sue everybody for everything.”
STILL, HE is a lawyer. There were conversations with his colleagues, discussing the possibilities. But with the terrorist dead, whom could he sue? And if he did sue, could he win? Later that year, Rena went to hear a lecture at a local synagogue. Israeli activist attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner was on a speaking tour following her recent victory over the Palestinian Authority in Israeli court, touting a $13 million lien against PLO chief Yasser Arafat’s assets.
Darshan-Leitner says several people approached her at that time. The basic sentiment: “‘I don’t want to be a victim anymore, I want to fight back,’” she remembered.
“And Rena was one of them.”
With around 200 such clients, Darshan-Leitner’s motto has been “Fighting terrorism, one lawsuit at a time.” Her organization, Shurat Hadin-Israel Law Center, aims “to go on the offensive against Israel’s enemies, helping Israel, the Jewish community and terror victims to fight back.”
Darshan-Leitner told the Sokolows they had a great case – and she wanted them to put their name right on the front of it.
Two years after the attack, Sokolow v. PLO was filed in US Federal Court, just a few blocks from Ground Zero.
They were suing the PA and its precursor, the PLO, under the US Anti-Terrorism Act. The 1992 law allows Americans who are victims of terror attacks to collect damages from terrorist entities and their supporters.
The lawsuit would be expensive. To defray the costs, a long list of other American families harmed by terror attacks were joined to the Sokolow case. The case aimed to show that the Palestinian government provided material support to the victims’ attackers, and that PA employees themselves were involved.
According to the plaintiffs, the Jaffa Road bomber had picked up the explosive backpack at the Mukata presidential compound of the PA, a sprawling complex where Arafat lived and worked.
As Mark Sokolow came to understand it, “This awful, awful thing happened, and it wasn’t some accident – someone tried to kill us. And it wasn’t only Wafa Idris; it was the people who sent her and the organizations behind them.”
The severed head Rena had seen the day of the bombing belonged to Idris, the young, female Red Crescent paramedic who detonated the knapsack filled with explosives in front of the Jaffa Road shoe store. Following the assault, Idris was celebrated as a martyr in Palestinian political publications, with Fatah’s al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades naming a new female suicide attack unit after her. A soccer tournament and a UNICEF-supported girls’ summer camp also took her name; a televised concert eulogizing her martyrdom was repeatedly broadcast on PA-controlled television, and a music video followed.
All of it disgusted the Sokolow family. “She was a murderer,” Mark said simply, “and they were glorifying her.”
But as the case worked its way through the court system, defense lawyers for the PA and PLO characterized the facts differently. PA employees who participated in the attacks were simply “rogue employees,” or as lead defense attorney Mark Rochon later said, “Sometimes, people who do terrible things work for the government.”
“They were very quick to take responsibility back then,” Mark Sokolow said. “And then all of a sudden, they washed their hands of it.”
But the PA case wasn’t the only one on Darshan-Leitner’s list. Soon, she and American lawyer Gary Osen would go after even more ambitious targets under the Anti-Terrorism Act.
The PA and PLO weren’t the only ones the Sokolow family could hold liable for the attack.
The Arab Bank processed transactions for a well-funded charity, the Saudi Committee for the Support of the Intifada al-Quds; the group sent money to the families of “martyrs,” including Idris’s family. Palestinian newspaper articles asked those families to go to their local Arab Bank branch to receive their payments. According to the group’s website at the time, the Idris family received $5,316 for their daughter’s death – approximately five times the annual income of an average Palestinian living in the West Bank or Gaza.
Armed with this evidence, a team of plaintiffs’ lawyers filed suit against the largest private financial institution in the Middle East, the Arab Bank of Jordan.
Then, the Sokolows waited.
Mark and Rena’s family slowly grew to include three sons-in-law and five grandchildren. Finally, after a decade of delays and legal procedures, both cases went to trial at nearly the same time.
The lawyers needed the family to take the stand for the case against the PA and PLO.
MARK KNEW that this was it. It had been 10 years since the case was filed, and even longer since the attack.
“Thirteen years is a long time,” he said. “A lot of this is in the recesses of your mind.”
Mark was a little nervous; they all were. He and Rena tried to calm each other down over the weekend. They called their kids, just to check in on them, asking, ‘‘You’re okay? Everything okay?’” But none of them needed to be reminded what they would say. “We know our story,” Mark said matter-of-factly.
“It’s the truth.”
On a bitterly cold Monday morning in downtown Manhattan, the Sokolow family entered the US federal courthouse, in the shadow of the soaring blue glass of the new One World Trade Center. They had agreed that each of them would testify alone; they would take the stand one by one in the mahogany-paneled courtroom, as the rest of the family waited out in the hall.
This was it.
Elana told the jury about her frantic phone calls. Jamie described the searing pain as a thousand shards of glass tore through her face, recounting through tears the thoughts she kept repeating to herself at the time: “I’m 12 years old, I’m from New York and I’m going to stay alive.”
The court heard how Lauren limped through the halls of her high school, suffering from nightmares and flashbacks.
And how the four of them still carry shrapnel under their skin.
Rena talked about the unrelenting pain in her legs, and how her scars make her self-conscious in the summertime.
And then, one by one, the lawyers thanked them and they stepped down from the witness stand and out into the hallway.
LESS THAN three weeks later and after less than a full business day of deliberations, laughter and jovial banter emanated loudly from the room marked “Jurors 11A.” Reporters warmed the benches in the courtroom, wondering aloud how the jurors could possibly be debating the details of terror attacks. It had to be a sign of unity.
The verdict came in just after noon this past February 23.
The foreman stood to read the verdict form. “Yes. Yes.
Yes. Yes. Yes.” The jury had found the PA liable for every single attack, including the January 27, 2002 bombing that had shattered the Sokolows’ last Sunday in Jerusalem.
“To me, that verdict and that statement to the world is justice,” stressed Mark.
In total, the jury chose to award $26.5 million to compensate for the Sokolow family’s injuries alone, which the law automatically triples. If the verdict survives an appeal – and they expect it will – the PA will owe them $79.5m.
“They need to pay,” Mark insists; it’s just what the law requires, he says. “And hopefully, it’s going to have the effect of making them think twice before continuing to do what they do.”
“No money’s going to make us feel any better, really,” Mark explained. They’d much rather not been caught in a suicide bombing.
But there may be more money coming anyway.
The total damages for all the victims and their families in Sokolow v. PLO totaled $218.5m. – tripled to $655.5m.
Damages from their case against the Arab Bank could dwarf that.
Five months earlier, a US federal court in Brooklyn found Arab Bank liable as well; a damages trial for Linde v.
Arab Bank set for this summer will determine how much the victims will receive. Legal experts have estimated those numbers could climb into the billions.
Experts caution against equating the two trials.
“They are actually very, very different cases,” said Zach Goldman, a legal expert and former senior US counterterrorism adviser. In the PA case, he clarified, “you are suing the people directly responsible, theoretically, for these terrorist attacks.” In the other case, you are suing a bank that is “at least one, if not two or more levels removed from the actual terror attack.”
“There are many different ways that you can support terrorists.”
With federal juries proving that even foreign governments and multibillion-dollar financial institutions can be held responsible, there’s a developing trend of rulings in favor of terror victims. This may invite a new crop of civil suits to be filed against a government or bank that supports a terror group – if they leave behind evidence litigators can find.
That last part is key, the lawyers say. It’s hard enough to muster the resources to sue these powerful institutions, but the difficultly lies in finding the evidence to link them to terror groups.
“[Banks are] never going to do business with ISIS [the Islamic State] or with groups or entities that they know to be linked to the Islamic State directly,” Goldman said. “At least they should not.”
SOMEDAY, MARK says, his grandchildren will learn about what happened on Jaffa Road. And he’s proud he can tell them that they did something about it.
“I wasn’t going to put on a uniform and go to battle,” Mark said, cracking a smile from his comfortable chair.
“But the kind of battle we fought was in the legal system, the American legal system.”
And because of Sokolow v. PLO, many more such battles are looming.