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Palestinian Groups Skate DC Civil Terror Suit

(CN) - Setting the stage for a possible circuit split, a Washington federal judge threw out a decade-old lawsuit against Palestinian groups for allegedly orchestrating a drive-by shooting of an Israeli settler traveling to work on a bus in the West Bank.

U.S. federal courts lack jurisdiction to handle Anti-Terrorism Act cases against the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman ruled on Wednesday.

The 20-page opinion directly contradicts the legal reasoning that a New York federal judge used to green-light a similar lawsuit that ended just over one week ago with a $655 million judgment against the PA and PLO.

In the Washington case, the plaintiffs are relatives of Esther Kleiman, a 23-year-old schoolteacher living in the West Bank settlement of Neve Tzuf.

Kleiman, whose name is apparently misspelled as Klieman in the public docket, had been taking a reinforced bus to the special-education kindergarten where she taught when she was killed in May 2002.

A gunman shot her in the head through an unprotected part of a bulletproof window, the Israeli foreign ministry reported at the time.

Kleiman's family filed her case in 2004, the same year that families of victims of other attacks in Jerusalem sued the PA and PLO in the Southern District of New York.

Both cases crawled through their respective federal court dockets for nearly 10 years before the Supreme Court issued a Jan. 14, 2014, ruling that cast doubt on whether the families of the victims could bring the cases to trial.

The Supreme Court's mostly unanimous ruling threw out an unrelated lawsuit alleging Daimler AG conspired with Argentine security forces to kidnap, torture and murder employees during the Dirty War.

It said the fact that Daimler had a Mercedes-Benz USA subsidiary in California did prove the auto giant was "at home" in the United States.

Citing this decision, Judge Friedman found Wednesday that the PA and PLO were not "at home" in the United States.

"The PA is based in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip," the opinion states.

"Although not recognized as a sovereign government by the United States, it governs a portion of the West Bank," it continues. "The PLO likewise is based in the West Bank and operates embassies and missions around the world."

PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi applauded the ruling, calling the suits "vile, baseless and politically-motivated allegations against the Palestinian people."

"Not only do such cases glut the U.S. court system, they distract from the real issues of freedom and dignity facing the Palestinian people," she said.

Ashrawi's remark slamming what she called "hardline factions" behind such cases appears to be a veiled swipe against Shurat HaDin, the Israeli law organization that filed the New York case.

The organization pursued international litigation against Palestinian leaders, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and activists the organization perceives to be antagonistic toward Israel.

Ashrawi testified at the New York trial about her role as a high-ranking diplomat during the Oslo Accords. She told the jury that she and late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat spoke about preventing the attacks their organization was accused of aiding.

Although a jury rejected her position after short deliberations, Ashrawi said that the PLO intends to "highlight this latest decision as further evidence in our upcoming appeal of the judgment against us in New York."

"We are confident we will prevail, as we have faith in the U.S. legal system and our strong legal standing," she said. "As always, we remain committed to the rule of law, the democratic process, and the peaceful pursuit of justice in every legal forum."

Friedman's opinion contains a footnote regarding the stipulation that the PLO had "no more than 12 staff members at the Washington, D.C. office" while deploying a diplomatic corps of roughly 1,300 people worldwide between 1998 and 2004."

By contrast, New York's Judge George Daniels found the families passed jurisdictional muster because his record was "insufficient to conclude" that the PA and PLO were not "at home" in the United States.

The PA's information minister Mahmoud Khalifa reacted by announcing plans to appeal the New York verdict to the 2nd Circuit.

A spokeswoman for the New York families did not immediately respond to an inquiry about how the new ruling might affect the prospects for that appellate battle.

In Washington, Kleiman's family also argued that jurisdiction existed because the PA allegedly provoked the attack to pressure the United States to stop Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank.

Friedman called that theory "tenuous at best" and found that it "lacks plausibility" because history showed that the Second Intifada had the opposite effect.

In the wake of the shooting, the United States "repeatedly demanded" that the PA and PLO "take effective measures to prevent every terrorist attack," the judge found.

A lawyer with the Washington-based Miller and Chevalier, a firm representing the Palestinians in both cases, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Neither did the lead attorney for the Kleiman estate.

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