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Starting this weekend, the annual Policy Conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee will bring together tens of thousands of Americans who champion Israel and its national ideals. Many AIPAC speakers lead in politics, humanitarian groups or faith communities.
For one of them, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, upholding justice happens in courtrooms around the world. The attorney represents victims of terrorism through the Israel Law Center, also known as Shurat HaDin (“letter of the law” in Hebrew).
Over 15 years, the nonprofit group has won over $200 million in payouts to terror victims and their families. Legal judgments totaling over $2 billion have also served as a deterrent. Terror groups have been cut off from using the U.S. financial system for nefarious purposes.
Residing near Tel Aviv in Israel, Darshan-Leitner and her husband Avi are parents of six children. Her family is one inspiration for her work. “When we send our kids to school, we want to know they’ll come back safe,” she says. Co-author of the new book Harpoon, she spoke in an interview from Israel.
A New Way to Fight the War on Terror
The Stream: Your book opens with a secret operative carrying a suitcase full of money. He lands in Israel to give payouts to terrorists. Is this sort of activity still occurring often in the Middle East?
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner: Yes, definitely it is. In places where there is no banking system or banks are too afraid to work, they have no choice but to bring money alternatively. They bring it through moneychangers. They bring it in cash in suitcases.
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I’ll tell one story from our book, Harpoon. In 2014, Hamas ran out of money and wanted to bring some cash into the Gaza Strip to pay their militants. This was right after their terrorists had kidnapped and killed three Israeli teenagers. Hamas sent an official to Egypt to come back. The courier had $13 million dollars cash in four suitcases. The Israeli military tracked him as he changed vehicles several times.
Ultimately, the suitcases made it to the Hamas head of payroll. They shot a missile at his car, which went up in a cloud of smoke. Incinerated $100 bills rained from the sky. A major conflict with Hamas ended just days later.
Even today, people are bringing money into terror zones because there are no other means to do it.
The Stream: Some operations by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, have led to civilian casualties. How does Operation Harpoon present a different approach?
Darshan-Leitner: This is an important point of why Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, wanted to launch Operation Harpoon. He realized that if Israel were to bomb populations from the air, they might hit innocent people. If Israel retaliated against Hamas, it might kill civilians. Dagan also saw that Israel sacrificed the lives of its soldiers, while the other side did not care about its own.
He was looking for ways to fight terrorism that would not cost human lives in a massive way. One of the goals of creating Harpoon was to show there are less-violent ways to fight terrorism. Operation Harpoon followed the money to drain their illegal finances and ultimately take out entire networks.
There is still a most-wanted list. For instance, the finance head of a terrorist organization would be a target. In the big picture, it is minimal to assassinate one man. Harpoon is just as effective as the conventional way, and perhaps even more.
Liberty and Justice for All
The Stream: How did your legal group then come to exist?
We couldn’t sit idly by while the blood of children was flowing in the streets of Tel Aviv. We thought, As lawyers, what can we do? How can we join the fight against terrorism?
Darshan-Leitner: Shurat HaDin, the Israeli Law Center, was privately initiated. We were a group of lawyers who had just finished law school. The second intifada broke out in the year 2000. We couldn’t sit idly by while the blood of children was flowing in the streets of Tel Aviv. We thought, As lawyers, what can we do? How can we join the fight against terrorism? We realized that if we utilized civil law, we could go after the money fueling the terrorism and perhaps bring it to a halt.
We began to file lawsuits against the terrorist organizations with financial interests. Mainly it has been against Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). In the United States, we file lawsuits against those involved in state-sponsored terrorism. This would include Iran and Syria.
After three years, we won some lawsuits in our favor. It was published all over the media. Then we were told by Harpoon that they would give us information we could utilize against banks that provided financial services to terror organizations. Shurat HaDin has the same idea as Harpoon. Whereas they came from a military strategy, we come at it in the private sector.
The Stream: Whom does your public interest legal firm represent in cases?
Darshan-Leitner: When it comes to terrorism and human rights violations, we take any case that we can bring against the aggressor. For instance, we represent a lot of Palestinians that were kidnapped and tortured by the Palestinian Authority (PA).
In the second Lebanese War, we helped people in the northern part of the country. We had a lot of plaintiffs from villages who got hit by Hezbollah. We represent whoever is affected by terror attacks, whether Muslims, Arabs, Christian Arabs, Jews or anyone.
Cutting the Finance Supply Lines, to Defund Terrorism
The Stream: Could you share about some of your successes bringing these money masters to justice?
Darshan-Leitner: The most recent one is the Boeing case where we put a lien on the deal that Iran signed with Boeing to purchase 80 aircraft for $17 billion dollars. We filed the case in Chicago where Boeing has its headquarters. We said, We have a judgment against Iran. We are entitled to the Iranian money or to the aircraft.The court asked the position of the U.S. government. In a rare move, they let us continue with our proceedings. This in itself is a big victory.
Recently, we won a judgment against the PLO and PA for $650 million dollars. That initial ruling was overturned and it’s now awaiting cert at the U.S. Supreme Court. We filed the lawsuit based on the Anti-Terrorism Act. The PA filed an appeal stating that they cannot be sued in the United States. We’ll see what happens. But the mere fact that we won a $650 million in a jury trial against the PLO and PA for aiding and abetting terrorism was a huge success.
In the Jewish Torah, we have the expression, Do not stand idly by while your brother’s blood is shed. We decided that we could not stand idly while innocent lives were being taken.
We have judgments and cases against banks that provided financial services to terrorist organizations. The banks have already learned their lesson. They know there are consequences to providing any sort of financial services to anyone who is engaged in terrorism.
The Stream: Why should Americans care about these court cases?
Darshan-Leitner: Terrorism is a global problem. Following the recent attack in Manhattan and 9/11, New York seems to hate terrorists the most. People are vigilant and watching carefully. They understand terrorism might affect them as well. America is a country that would hate to have another terror attack after the events in Orlando, Las Vegas and San Bernardino.
In the Boeing case, the plaintiffs are American citizens whose daughters were injured and killed. It shows that any American citizen anywhere in the world might get hit. People in the U.S. should be following this case. We try to make it easy with the e-mail updates we send out.
Driven by Faith and Justice
The Stream: How does your faith inform the work you do to seek justice for vulnerable people?
Darshan-Leitner: In the Jewish Torah, we have the expression, Do not stand idly by while your brother’s blood is shed. We decided that we could not stand idly while innocent lives were being taken. We had to join the fight and do anything we can.
We have to make sure that we can live safely in Israel. We want our neighbors to be able to walk the streets safely. This is what drives us to do this work. We pay a price in our lives. It’s not easy work. The government of Israel cannot do this type of advocacy. They need private sector players in this arena, so this is where we stand.
The new book Harpoon by Nitsana Darshan-Leitner and Samuel Katz is now available online and in bookstores. Watch a recent CBN interview with Nitsana Darshan-Leitner: