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Wednesday, June 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Palestinian Terror Case Under Way in NYC

MANHATTAN (CN) - More than a decade after filing their lawsuit, victims of a wave of terror attacks known as the Second Intifada stood before a New York jury on Tuesday, as their long-anticipated case finally made it to trial.

Lead plaintiff Mark Sokolow, a lawyer who survived a bombing in Jerusalem shortly after escaping the south tower of the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, had been seated with his wife Rena in the front row when his lawyer Kent Yalowitz asked him to rise.

The couple was among the many plaintiffs sitting in the standing-room-only federal courtroom in lower Manhattan, where a case filed in 2004 finally saw a trial.

Lawyers for both the victims of the bombings and the Palestinian governing bodies being sued now condemn the attacks at issue in the case, which killed dozens and maimed hundreds.

The victims present at court lost family in several attacks, including a July 31, 2002 attack on Hebrew University's Frank Sinatra cafeteria; a Jan. 22, 2002 machine-gunning on Jerusalem's Jaffa Road; and a Jan. 29, 2004 suicide bombing of a bus in Jerusalem.

Yalowitz, a New York-based lawyer with the firm Arnold & Porter, repeatedly described the attacks as "terrorism" and "morally unacceptable."

His adversary, Mark Rochon of the Washington-based firm Miller & Chevalier, agreed that they were "crazy, wrong, contemptible," but he insisted that the perpetrators were "not my clients."

"The men and women who did this aren't here," he added.

Rochon pointed out that the victims did not sue more militant Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Fatah.

In a conflict brimming with contested history, U.S. District Judge George Daniels forbade the lawyers from turning opening arguments into politics, and both parties strained to give jurors a neutral account of the history of the Palestinian governing bodies.

The trial calls for jurors to reach separate verdicts in the cases against the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Created in 1964, the PLO rose three years before Israel's war with Jordan, Egypt and Syria - leading to the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the conquest of the Golan Heights.

The PA formed as a governing body in the 1990s through the negotiations of the Oslo Accords.

Recounting an abbreviated form of the terms of these negotiations, Rochon emphasized that the accords left the PA with limited jurisdiction over West Bank territories, and no control at all of the cities in Israel struck in the terror attacks.

Mapping out the command structure of each attack, Yalowitz denoted the alleged PA and PLO participants with the eagle insignia that emblazons the Palestinian shield.

Rochon insisted that PA or PLO staffers could only be tied to three of the six attacks relevant to the trial.

Stating that the Palestinian Authority had 100,000 employees during this period, Rochon asserted that the case was about "what a few of them did in the years of that intense, passionate conflict."

"This will come as no surprise: Not all Palestinians are alike," Rochon added. "In our system of justice, we do not have something called guilt by association."

Yalowitz derided the notion that the PA and PLO figures linked to the attacks acted on their own.

"These employees were not rogue employees," he said. "As I said, this was standard operating procedure."

Instead, Yalowitz asserted that they acted on the explicit or implicit orders of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

"The evidence will show that Arafat was the epitome of one-man rule," Yalowitz said.

This connection hinges in part on a letter that the Palestinians' head of general intelligence sent to Arafat on Feb. 22, 2002, concerning the arrest of then-21-year-old Mohammed Hashaika. The message stated that Hashaika "wanted to perpetrate a suicide operation."

"Five weeks later, Hashaika was out of jail with a bomb around his body," Yalowitz said.

The Palestinian Authority never provided the victims with a release order from prison, the lawyer continued, adding that "a simple, quiet nod of the head was enough."

Under Palestinian law, governing bodies provide "martyr payments" to the families of perpetrators of terror attacks and prisoners in Israeli jails, Yalowitz noted.

Referring to the man who shouted "Allahu Akbar" before firing an M-16 at passersby at a Jerusalem intersection, Yalowitz said: "[Sa'id] Ramadan's family gets money every single month because he died as a suicide terrorist."

Displaying the statute, Yalowitz noted that the PA also provides payments to Palestinian prisoners, defined as "anyone who is kept in prisons of the occupation for offenses of participating in the struggle against the occupation."

Rochon denied that such payments would provide much incentive.

The family of suicide bomber Ali Ja'ara received $100 per month as his "martyr's payment," an amount that could not support his "five or six siblings," Rochon maintained.

Rochon added that the Israeli military demolished Ja'ara family's house after the terror attack, in oblique reference to a controversial policy panned by its critics as collective punishment.

Meanwhile, the lawyer downplayed the Palestinian policy of paying and promoting convicted terrorists with a comparison U.S. policy toward prisoners of war.

"John McCain didn't lose his rank or his money when he was locked up by the Vietnamese," Rochon said.

In a trial expected to last five weeks, jurors will hear much emotional testimony from family members of the victims.

"Some of them have trouble expressing their emotions," Yalowitz cautioned the jurors. "Terrorism tore these families apart."

Indeed, the first witness - Meshulan Pearlman, an elderly flower shop owner - recalled standing 15 meters away from the suicide bombing of a morning bus in Jerusalem.

Speaking in Hebrew through a translator, Pearlman told jurors that he was placing hooks on an iron column where he hung his plants when he suddenly heard an explosion.

"There were white and red pyrotechnic displays on the top of the bus," he said. "On the basis of my military experience I knew it was a terrorist attack."

He recalled: "Bodies, corpses were flying onto the ground and rooftops. It was worse than a scene of war."

Testimony continues on Wednesday with witness Nick Kaufman, a Israeli international law attorney born and educated in Britain.

A judge in an Israeli military court, sometime prosecutor and defense attorney for war criminals at the International Criminal Court, Kaufman is expected to introduce documents from Israel's military courts purported to tie the attacks to the PA and PLO.

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