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May 30, 2014 – Nitsana Darshan-Leitner fights terrorism with pen and paper.
The Israeli lawyer takes on cases against extremist organizations, engaging in a civil form of guerrilla warfare. Her battlefields: Israeli, European and North American courts.
The Tel Aviv-based mother of six sees her work as a vocation. She was inspired to action by an incident that horrified Israel.
It was October 2000 and two Israeli reservists got lost. They ended up in Ramallah on the West Bank, where they were murdered by a mob.
“This mistake cost them their lives,” says Ms. Darshan-Leitner, who is due to speak June 9 at the annual gala of Chabad Flamingo, a Jewish community centre and synagogue in Thornhill, north of Toronto. We thought in any normal state, the police and state would be found responsible for this horrible lynching, so we were determined to file a lawsuit against Palestinian Authority
“We thought in any normal state, the police and state would be found responsible for this horrible lynching, so we were determined to file a lawsuit against Palestinian Authority (PA) and police to have them compensate the families of the soldiers,” says the woman, who was then in her late 20s.
They ended up winning about US$20,000. She went on to help found Shurat HaDin, or Israel Law Centre, in 2003. The civil rights organization, which employs eight lawyers, aims to stop the flow of terror money by filing massive civil lawsuits.
It’s modelled on an Alabama law centre that shut down racist groups in the U.S. in this way. The pioneering Israeli organization has represented hundreds of victims in cases against Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and the PA. It also takes on countries — Iran, Syria and North Korea, for example — and financial institutions, such as the Lebanese-Canadian Bank and the Bank of China.
Astonishingly, it has lost only one or two cases out of about 60. It’s won more than $1-billion in judgments, frozen more than $600-million in terrorist assets and collected $120 million in payments.
Getting the money isn’t always easy though, as is the case in a Canadian lawsuit in which Ms. Darshan-Leitner is involved.
Last year, Vancouver dentist Dr. Sherri Wise, who was injured in a 1997 Hamas suicide bombing, sued Iran, the first such case under a new Canadian law that allows victims to collect damages from state sponsors of terrorism.
“This case … is against Iran so it might end quickly, but the question is ‘How do you collect the money?’ That may take years,” the lawyer says on the phone from Tel Aviv.
And although she represents Palestinians, she would not do so in cases against Israel. The fearless litigator sees herself as a defender of the Jewish state and will take on all comers. She even sued the European Union over payments to the PA, which, it was claimed, help fund terrorism.
“[But because] the EU has diplomatic immunity in Israel … we couldn’t get the court to continue with it. It was dismissed,” she says.
Nonetheless, the lawsuit had an effect: It spurred the EU to look more closely at where its funding was going.
More recently, the centre has been combating “lawfare,” or perceived propaganda against Israel.
“When Israel’s enemies realized wars will not defeat it, they began utilizing other methods,” Ms. Darshan-Leitner says.
That includes the Palestinian-led campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), which urges the boycott of Israeli products or events.
Ms. Darshan-Leitner has started legal proceedings against Jake Lynch, head of the University of Sydney’s Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies, claiming his support for the BDS movement amounts to racial discrimination.
Her organization also managed to prevent a Gaza-bound flotilla from setting sail from Greece in May 2011 by filing complaints about the boats’ seaworthiness, among other things.
While that was an instant win, many cases drag on endlessly.
“Some take many years, it is a hard struggle,” she says. “Those who do defend themselves in court, for example, banks, hire the best and biggest law firms and we find ourselves up against very sophisticated legal teams.
“We see ourselves as the little fish that bites the big shark … We are winning the war.”
We see ourselves as the little fish that bites the big shark … We are winning the war
But victory comes at a price. As the mother of six children aged six to 15, including triplets aged nine, she finds balancing work and family one of her biggest challenges.
“I have an obligation to my work, but the other is to my family — my kids and my husband. This is very demanding work, and takes away from me spending time with them. I try not to deprive them of anything … We spend weekends together and vacations; I am a very involved mum even from long distance.”
“I am very determined to succeed and to keep going,” she adds.
“I want to let people know there is a civil way to fight terrorism, a non-violent way to fight against Israel’s enemies. My victories assure me this is the right way to go.”