COURTHOUSE NEWS EXCLUSIVE
Congress passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorist Act last year to strip Saudi Arabian government officials of their immunity so that they can be sued by 9/11 families.
Previously only states designated as sponsors of terrorism could be sued for injuries stemming from an international act of terrorism. The new law, often shortened to JASTA, allows civil claims against a foreign government.
Marking the first time anyone has used the law to sue officials of a foreign government other than Saudi Arabia, Martin McMahon of the Transnational Business Attorneys Group is invoking JASTA to take on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Courthouse News received an advance copy of the complaint, which McMahon is filing on Feb. 1 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
“Financing, encouraging, or participating in war crimes [genocide and ethnic cleansing] fits within the definition of ‘international terrorism,’” the 103-page complaint states (brackets in original). “By promoting, participating in, or funding international terrorism, all defendants have also violated the recently enacted statute known as Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorist Act.”
The filing is the latest in McMahon’s legal salvo against tax-free U.S. aid to Israel. In addition to Netanyahu, the complaint takes aim at a half-dozen other defendants including Ehud Barak and Avigdor Lieberman, officials with the Israeli Ministry of Defense.
Opposed to a two-state solution, according to the complaint, these officials have enabled “wholesale violence against a civilian population,” aiming to permanently colonize Palestinian land in the West Bank – territory Israelis call Judea and Samaria.
The Israeli embassy in Washington did not respond to an email requesting comment on the lawsuit.
Suing on behalf of 45 named plaintiffs from across the United States and Palestine, attorney McMahon also takes aim at visible members of President Donald Trump’s administration.
David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer whom Trump picked as U.S. ambassador to Israel, has been widely quoted as suggesting that Israel should annex at least some West Bank land with Israeli settlements.
The complaint says Friedman “sends settlers in Bet El $2.2 million every year to finance arms trafficking and settlement expansion,” and has been involved in funding Israeli settlements since 1977.
Friedman, who has not returned an email requesting comment, is also president of named co-defendant American Friends of Bet El Institutions.
Bet El is an Israeli settlement with a population of about 6,500 near the Palestinian city of Ramallah. American Friends of Bet El Institutions is one of more than 100 U.S. tax-exempt entities that the complaint says funnel $2 billion in annual charitable donations into Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Another such charity named in the complaint is the Kushner Family Foundation, which has also not responded to an email seeking comment. Jared Kushner, the scion of that prominent family, is the husband of first daughter Ivanka Trump. In addition to his involvement in the Kushner Family Foundation, the newly minted senior White House adviser and Middle East peace envoy sits on the national board of New York City-based Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces, the Israeli Army’s biggest donor.
As described in the complaint, the activities of pro-occupation charities violate a federal law that prohibits financing a foreign army’s “expedition or enterprise” against “any colony, district, or people with whom the United States is at peace.”
Since Israel’s tax code prohibits Israeli citizens from making charitable donations to settlements, the complaint says that the Friedman and Kushner families “set up NGOs in Israel to receive their donations.”
The charities get help from accounting firms like Billet, Feit & Price PC, which the complaint accuses of engaged in tax fraud, perjury and violations of federal money-laundering laws.
“These officials deceive donors into thinking that their charitable contributions are legitimate, would be used exclusively for charitable purposes, and that the beneficiaries are all located in Israel, not Palestine,” the complaint states of the accounting firm.
Billet, Feit & Price did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Lead plaintiff Miko Peled, of San Diego, Calif., hails from a prominent Zionist family in Israel but said in an interview that he comes down “very decidedly on the Palestinian side.” His grandfather, Avraham Katsnelson, signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence. His father, Mattityahu Peled, fought in the 1948 war – what Israelis refer to as a war of independence and what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe. The senior Peled served as a general in the Six-Day War in 1967, but later called for a two-state solution.
Peled questions whether Americans understand that the Israeli settlements present an obstacle to a peace deal.
“The settlements are not like tiny little towns, these are major cities,” he said, noting that settlements have invested billions in shopping centers, schools and factories. “They’re there to stay.”
[su_columnpostpullquote align=”left”]Newly minted by his father-in-law as senior White House adviser and Middle East peace envoy, Jared Kushner sits on the national board of New York City-based Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces, the Israeli Army’s biggest donor.[/su_columnpostpullquote]When pro-occupation charities send $2 billion a year to benefit Israeli settlements, according to the complaint, those funds drain the U.S. economy and deprive the Treasury Department of essential tax revenue over the years – another violation of JASTA.
“U.S. donors like Defendant Friedman and Kushner family members [and perhaps President-elect Trump] take illegal tax deductions every April 15th based on financing criminal activity overseas like theft of private property, arms trafficking, genocide, ethnic cleansing and arson,” the complaint states (brackets in original).
Though settlers say they need military equipment to defend against Palestinian attacks, the complaint notes that donor money is funding “expensive Kalashnikovs, body armor, stun guns, sniper scopes, bullet proof vests, night vision goggles, and percussion grenades.”
“Arming belligerent settlers constitutes classic arms trafficking under both U.S. and Israeli law,” the complaint states.
Peled says he is troubled that Trump has given Freidman and Kushner significant roles in the new administration.
“I think it’s a very serious problem,” Peled said. “But at least it displays the real intentions of this administration.”
Though not named as a defendant, Trump is accused in the lawsuit of possibly having made illegal donations to Friends of Bet El, the Kushner Family Foundation or Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces – all American tax-exempt entities that fund Israeli settlements.
Any donations Trump made to those organizations would be listed on his 1040 tax form, but the president has yet to release them. Representatives for the Trump transition team and the White House media team have not responded to emails seeking comment.
The complaint says any donations Trump made to pro-settlement tax-exempt entities would constitute money laundering.
In an interview, attorney McMahon noted that U.S. tax-exempt entities get their status because the charitable work they do on U.S. soil alleviates a burden from the federal government. What they cannot do, McMahon said, is conspire to hurt individuals overseas or damage their property.
“When you send clean funds overseas to promote criminal activities like ethnic cleansing, theft of property and genocide, you commit money laundering,” McMahon said, who put Trump’s possible donation to American Friends of Bet El at $10,000.
[su_columnpostpullquote align=”right”]Israel considers Palestinian areas disputed territories – not occupied – because there was no Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank when Israel seized the territory, which was ruled by Jordan between 1948 and 1967. Because of that, the pro-settlement movement within Israel believes the country has just as much of a legal right to the land as Palestinians do.[/su_columnpostpullquote]Accusations of genocide jolt Israelis, whose collective memory of the horrors of the Holocaust is ever present. But Peled said the description is largely accurate.
“We’re talking about real genocide,” said Peled. “This is not small. It’s not just anti-Semitic slurs. If you take the UN definition of the crime of genocide – if you place it side by side with Israeli actions toward the Palestinians – it’s almost identical. It’s striking when you do that.”
The Office of the United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide defines genocide as any “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” That includes “killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”
The Israeli government staunchly denies that it is engaged in ethnic cleaning or genocide against the Palestinian people. Israel says that any violence it employs is self-defense from Palestinian terror attacks.
But Peled points to the violence of the Israeli occupation inflicted on Palestinians as the bigger context. Military checkpoints, and the imposition of settler-only roads that connect the settlements to Israel, restrict Palestinian travel through the West Bank, he added.
“All of my friends who are Palestinian – their kids are being shot, they’re being imprisoned, they’re being tortured, they’re being beaten – they’re stuck in these little open-air mini prisons,” Peled said.
The UN deems Israeli settlements illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which prohibits countries from moving their civilian population into territories occupied by war. Israel disagrees, however, that the law applies to the territories it seized in 1967, including the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel considers Palestinian areas disputed territories – not occupied – because there was no Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank when Israel seized the territory, which was ruled by Jordan between 1948 and 1967. Because of that, the pro-settlement movement within Israel believes the country has just as much of a legal right to the land as Palestinians do.
McMahon’s clients reject this interpretation. The attorney said named plaintiffs Ali Ali and Linda Keteeb have lost $2 million to $3 million in West Bank property to which they hold the original deeds. Israeli settlers took the property by force, McMahon added.
Peled says Israelis don’t suffer materially from the occupation but that both sides suffer because of a lack of normalcy.
“The way I live, where I grew up – the privileges I have, the resources I have – everything is a result of the occupation of Palestine,” Peled said. “When you’re an Israeli, you’re a prison guard.”
[su_columnpostpullquote]“The way I live, where I grew up – the privileges I have, the resources I have – everything is a result of the occupation of Palestine. When you’re an Israeli, you’re a prison guard.”[/su_columnpostpullquote]Peled called the level of ignorance on the issue in the U.S. “stunning, considering how much money goes there.”
“These people are pouring money into this, and they’re getting a tax break,” he said.
Peled is optimistic that the American judiciary will “wake up” and chip away at the settlement issue. “All it takes is one judge to say ‘you know what, I’m going to give this some thought,'” he said.
Suing for $200 million in damages, the plaintiffs allege civil conspiracy, negligence, reckless supervision, aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity, and aiding and abetting tax fraud.
Netanyahu and other high-level Israeli officials cannot claim immunity, according to the complaint, because the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act contains exceptions for commercial activity and theft of private property.
The complaint accuses the officials of enabling the theft of thousands of acres of Palestinian land used to build Jewish-only settlements. In the process, the Israeli government demolished 49,000 Palestinian homes and forcibly removed 400,000 Palestinians – an act that the lawsuit says constitutes ethnic cleansing and meets part of the criteria for the Genocide Convention: the deliberate infliction of conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction of a group in whole or in part.
As for the commercial activity, the complaint points to arms-purchase agreements in the United States.
“Every year, these officials visit Washington D.C. and consult with Department of Defense officials about the purchase of military hardware and sophisticated weaponry,” the complaint states. “Thus, they have been engaged in classic commercial activity in the U.S. for the last thirty years.”