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January 13, 2015 – NEW YORK — A U.S. jury at a high-stakes civil trial was asked on Tuesday to decide whether the Palestinian authorities should be held responsible and pay hefty damages for a series of terror attacks in Israel that killed and wounded Americans.
"The evidence will show that killing civilians was standard operating procedure for the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority," attorney Kent Yalowitz, representing the victims, said in opening arguments at a trial in federal court in Manhattan.
Defense attorney Mark Rochon countered in his opening statement that six attacks from 2002 to 2004 were carried out by suicide bombers and gunmen "acting on their own angry, crazy reasons."
The exchange came in a courtroom packed with spectators including people who lost loved ones or suffered injuries in the attacks. Some of the victims are slated to testify at the trial, expected to last at least six weeks.
"Terrorism tore these families apart — not just physically, but in many cases, emotionally," Yalowitz said.
The plaintiffs' lawyer recounted the six deadly attacks that killed dozens, including suicide bombings on a bus and at a university cafeteria. He told jurors they would see payroll records and other documents proving the Palestinian Authority "embraced these crimes" by continuing to pay security officials who organized the attacks, even after they were convicted of murder.
After introducing two Palestinian officials who were attending the trial, Rochon argued that the PLO and the Palestinian Authority were victims of guilt by association with assailants in attacks that were never officially sanctioned.
"We are not defending these acts," Rochon said, calling them "horrific."
But he asked jurors to set aside their emotions over scenes of bloodshed and opinions about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and instead focus on the question of "whether or not the government I represent should be held liable for things it did not do."
The first witness, Meshhulam Pearlman, testified that he witnessed a bus bombing in Jerusalem in 2004 near a flower shop he operates there. The blast left the street strewn with body parts, he said.
"People were severed into pieces. … It was worse than a war," said the 70-year-old witness.
The 2004 lawsuit was brought under the Antiterrorism Act of 1991 and seeks a billion dollars from the Palestinian Authority and the PLO. Lawyers for the plaintiffs say any damages awarded would be automatically tripled because the claims involved acts of terrorism.
The trial went forward despite an unsuccessful last-ditch attempt by the PLO and Palestinian Authority to convince appeals judges that a Manhattan court does not have jurisdiction.
In court papers, lawyers for the Palestinian Authority and the PLO say a U.S. court should not have jurisdiction over the case just because the PLO maintains a 12-person office in the United States. They say the Palestinian Authority and the PLO's home is in the West Bank.
They also said the publicity of the trial, "some of it inevitable, some of it sought by plaintiffs, will undermine the confidence in the PA's ability to govern and contribute to a worsening of tensions in the region at a delicate moment."
The trial was to resume on Wednesday.