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February 23, 2015 – NEW YORK
The Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization were found liable on Monday by a jury in Manhattan for their role in knowingly supporting six terrorist attacks in Israel between 2002 and 2004 in which Americans were killed and injured.
The damages are to be $655.5 million, under a special terrorism law that provides for tripling the $218.5 million awarded by the jury in Federal District Court.
The verdict ended a decade-long legal battle to hold the Palestinian organizations responsible for the terrorist acts, an effort that encompassed fights over jurisdiction, merit and even practicality: History has shown that it is difficult for victims of international terrorism to bring their civil cases to trial, let alone to recover damages.
While the decision on Monday was a huge victory for the dozens of plaintiffs, it could also serve to strengthen Israel’s claim that the supposedly more moderate Palestinian forces were directly linked to terrorism.
The Palestinian groups said in a statement that they intended to appeal the verdict, but did not address their willingness or capacity to pay. In at least two previous cases, in which judges entered default judgments against them for more than $100 million, the groups reached confidential settlements, court records show.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said that if the Palestinian groups refused to pay, they were confident that they would be able to seize the groups’ assets, both in the United States and abroad.
The verdict came in the seventh week of a civil trial during which the jury heard emotional testimony from survivors of suicide bombings and other attacks in Jerusalem, in which a total of 33 people were killed and more than 450 were injured.
“Money is oxygen for terrorism,” Kent A. Yalowitz, a lawyer for the families, said in a closing argument on Thursday, adding that the antiterrorism law “hits those who send terrorists where it hurts them most: in the wallet.”
The case was brought under the Anti-Terrorism Act, which allows American citizens who are victims of international terrorism to sue in the United States courts. The law was used in September by a Brooklyn jury to find Arab Bank liable for supporting terrorism by Hamas. Damages in that case, filed by about 300 victims of 24 terrorist attacks, are to be decided in a second trial, which has not yet been held.
In the Palestinian case, Judge George B. Daniels rejected repeated defense arguments to dismiss the case in the years before trial. The plaintiffs included 10 families, comprising about three dozen members, eight of whom were physically injured in the attacks while the others were left with deep psychological scars, testimony showed.
The plaintiffs also included the estates of four victims who had been killed in the attacks, which occurred on the street and at a crowded bus stop, inside a bus, and in a cafeteria on the campus of Hebrew University.
“It was a terrible thing to see,” one plaintiff, Robert Coulter Sr., 78, testified as he described watching a news report about the cafeteria bombing and realizing his 36-year-old daughter, a New Yorker on a business trip, was one of the victims.
“They brought a body bag out on the TV station, right on it, and went right down to where she was laying and I knew it was a girl, had blond hair,” Mr. Coulter recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, my goodness, that’s Janis.’ ”
The defense had argued that their clients had nothing to do with the attacks. Mark J. Rochon, a defense lawyer, told the jury on Thursday that he did not want “the bad guys, the killers, the people who did this to get away while the Palestinian Authority or the P.L.O. pay for something they did not do.”
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the P.L.O.’s executive committee who testified for the defense, told the jury, “We tried to prevent violence from all sides.”
But citing testimony, payroll records and other documents, the plaintiffs showed that many of those involved in the planning and carrying out of the attacks had been employees of the Palestinian Authority, and that the authority had paid salaries to terrorists imprisoned in Israel and had made martyr payments to the families of suicide bombers.
The Palestinian Authority and the P.L.O. said in a statement that they were “deeply disappointed” in the verdict, calling the lawsuit’s charges “baseless.”
“We will appeal this decision,” Dr. Mahmoud Khalifa, the Palestinian Authority’s deputy minister of information, said in the statement. “We are confident that we will prevail, as we have faith in the U.S. legal system and are certain about our common sense belief and our strong legal standing.”
“This case is just the latest attempt by hard-line antipeace factions in Israel to use and abuse the U.S. legal system to advance their narrow political and ideological agenda,” he added.
He also called the decision “a tragic disservice to the millions of Palestinians who have invested in the democratic process and the rule of law in order to seek justice and redress their grievances.”
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they could seek orders to have the defendants’ bank accounts frozen and to require them to turn over real estate and other property. The judgments could also be taken to other countries, where the defendants do business or have assets, Mr. Yalowitz, one of the lawyers, said.
“Once you have a judgment, the P.A. and the P.L.O., if they don’t pay, are like any other deadbeat debtor,” he said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said he expected the “international community to continue to punish those who support terrorism, just as the U.S. federal court has done, and to back the countries that are fighting terrorism.”
“Today as well,” Mr. Netanyahu added, “we remember the families that lost their loved ones; our heart is with them and there is no justice that can console them.”
The Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, had serious financial troubles even before Israel, as punishment for the Palestinians’ move in December to join the International Criminal Court, began withholding more than $100 million a month in tax revenue it collects on the Palestinians’ behalf.
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, another of the families’ lawyers, said the plaintiffs would also go after those taxes.
“Our goal is to get this judgment paid,” she said. “We did this before. We are going to do it this time again.”
The trial opened last month with testimony from a man who ran a flower shop in Jerusalem, who recalled the “utter destruction” after the bombing of the No. 19 bus in a 2004 attack that killed 11 people.
Karen Goldberg, a Brooklyn native, testified about how the death of her husband, Scotty Goldberg, who was on the bus, had caused their children to suffer from depression and anger issues, and to have trouble in school.
Their youngest of seven children, who was then under 2 years old, did not speak until he was 3, she said. One day, Ms. Goldberg said, he wandered into the kitchen and shocked her when he uttered his first words, “Did someone kill my father?”
“He wanted to know, ‘Where is the bad man?’ ” she added.
The lead plaintiff, Mark I. Sokolow, a lawyer, had escaped from the south tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. The following Jan. 27, he and his family were in Israel to visit their eldest daughter.
He, his wife, Rena, and their two other daughters were outside a shoe store on Jaffa Road when a suicide bomber blew herself up, killing one Israeli and wounding more than 100 other people.
Ms. Sokolow testified that she found herself on the ground with her leg bleeding profusely and a bone sticking out. She said she looked to the right and saw a woman’s severed head lying about three feet away.
The youngest daughter, Jamie, who suffered a severe eye injury, told the jury, “My whole face felt like it was on fire.”
She added, “I kept saying to myself, ‘No, I’m 12 years old, and I’m from New York, and I’m going to stay alive.’ ”