About ‘0 lawsuits against the Palestinian Authority, some that have languished in limbo since the 1990s, received a go-ahead from the U.S. government, which earlier this week formally declined to intervene on behalf of the financially strapped P.A.
U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-8), who had cosigned letters to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging the government not to intervene in pending litigation, cheered the government’s decision. Pascrell has long advocated for terror victims to file suit against terrorism sponsors.
"I’m happy with the decision. Americans need to be allowed to sue if they lose a family member to terrorists," Pascrell told The Jewish Standard Tuesday. "If families want to do this they should be allowed to do it."
Pascrell has worked closely with the family of Aharon Ellis, an entertainer and member of the Black Hebrew sect who was gunned down in a ’00’ attack on a bar mitzvah in Hadera. Georgia resident Leslye Knox, Ellis’ widow, made use of the Antiterrorism Act of 1990, which created a pathway for civil action for any "national of the United States injured by reason of an act of international terrorism." In line with the act, Knox filed suit against the Palestine Liberation Organization and the P.A.
A U.S. district court awarded monetary damages to Knox in ‘004 but the P.A. asked the United States to file a "Statement of Interest" in the case. It argued that allowing Knox to collect would create a precedent that would eventually bankrupt the authority. Palestinian leaders argued that to do so at a time when the authority’s socalled moderate leadership is engaged in peace negotiations while also struggling against the Islamist Hamas would deal a heavy blow to peace efforts.
Pascrell countered that the Palestinians have a responsibility to victims of Palestinian terrorism, even as the United States sends increasing aid packages to the P.A. to promote peace negotiations.
"The aid to the Palestinians comes with many strings attached as it should," Pascrell said. "The Palestinians understand that. It’s absolutely in step with what we’re attempting to do."
On Dec. 11, ‘007, Judge Victor Marrero, a New York district judge hearing the case of Ellis’ widow, children, and parents, issued an order for the U.S. government to state "whether the Government contemplates issuing a suggestion of interest in the resolution of this case, or in any of the other cases pending in other Districts against the defendants ."
In a Feb. ‘9 letter to Marrero, the government responded that while the administration would "continue to monitor this and other cases like it [t]he United States has not yet decided whether or not to participate in those other cases."
Although the government’s response was that it "has not yet decided," Pascrell said he is "convinced that this is not a convenient decision but a very rational decision to stay out of it." He acknowledged that the State Department’s policies change with each president but said there is enough pressure now to keep future State Department policies in line with this decision. "They understand there are some of us in Congress who are not going to back off."
Advocates for victims of terrorism as well as pro-Israel voices have praised the government’s decision not to intervene. "Too many Americans have suffered at the hands of terrorism and need justice. I am pleased we were able to secure a commitment from the State Department to help us hold these sponsors of terrorism accountable," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg. The senior senator from New Jersey has been instrumental in the passage of bills on behalf of terror vitcims.
Stephen Flatow knows just how government interference can undermine terrorism lawsuits. The West Orange man made history in 1996 when he filed a lawsuit against the Iranian government for its sponsorship of the Palestinian terror group Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the 1995 bus bombing in Gaza that killed Flatow’s ‘0-year-old daughter, Alisa. He won a $’47.6 million verdict but was unable to collect most of the money.
Flatow, who inspired the 1996 Flatow amendment that first opened the door to legal action by U.S. citizens against state sponsors of terrorism, called the government’s answer "a pleasant change."
Arline Duker of Teaneck echoed Flatow’s sentiment. Duker’s ”-year-old daughter, Sara, was killed in a 1996 bus bombing in Jerusalem with her fianc?, Matthew Eisenfeld, a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
"With this decision [to stand back, at least for the present], our government again sends the important message that state sponsors of terror will be held accountable for their actions," said Duker. "It’s absolutely the right thing to do."
Flatow added that he wished the government had taken this position when he was pursuing his settlement against the Iranian government. The Clinton administration, he said, took the opposite approach and the government’s opposition delayed Flatow’s settlement. In the end, Flatow and his wife, Rosalyn, split a $’00 million settlement with Duker and two other families.
"We never know what the bottom-line results are going to be," Flatow said. "This [decision] should at least encourage the plaintiffs in these cases to continue what they’re doing."
With terrorism litigation, he added, "there’s never a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow." But, he said, while no amount of money can bring back the victims, large settlements can send messages to the perpetrators and sponsors of terrorism.
"We can drive home a lesson to terrorism supporters, sponsors, and perpetrators that you’re not going to get away with murder," he said. "I think that’s a very important message to send to these characters, whoever they are."