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May 20, 2011 – Attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner has been making her way through various courts worldwide for over a decade now, filing lawsuits against political bodies, businesses and even nations like Iran and Iraq – all in the name of seeking justice for terror victims.
Darshan-Leitner, who founded the Israel Law Center (ILC) in 2002, has one goal: To destabilize the financial infrastructure of terror organizations.
Just last week, the ILC sent letters warning insurance companies offering marine policies against covering vessels that may partake in Gaza-bound sails. Theh letters said that should the companies in question provide insurance coverage for those attempting to provide technical and financial support to Hamas in Gaza, the firms may be liable for any future terror act it perpetrates.
This preemptive measure, as Darshan-Leitner calls it, is just a small part of the ILC’s activities. Through the organization, she has so far been able to collect some $1 billion in damages for terror victims. These include a $116 million restitution order to the family of victims of a 1996 West Bank shooting, and $183 million in damages to the family of one of the victims of a 1996 Hamas bus bombing in Jerusalem.
“So far we have been able to collect millions of dollars through eight lawsuits for the families of the (bus) bombing,” she said. “When I got the verdict, I made copies and sent it to all my acquaintances, even those who initially tried to discourage me.”
Burning the midnight oil
Darshan-Leitner is the daughter of Persian immigrants who came to Israel as children.
“My father was the only one in that community to be able to push himself up in the world. He got a university education and worked as a teacher; and pushed us to learn and excel. It was a modest home. There is no doubt that part of my life has made me determined. When I set a goal for myself, I won’t stop looking for ways to realize it,” she said.
The graduate of a religious high school and National Service as a Magen David Adom emergency services volunteer, Darshan-Leitner had her heart set on medical school, “before realizing all of those long hours weren’t suitable for a girl hoping to start a family.”
She chose law school instead and it was there that she met Aviel Leitner, who would become her husband. The two are the proud parents of six children, including triplets.
“At the end of the day I work harder than most doctors,” she said. “I disappear for weeks at a time, traveling around the world, and even when things are so-called calm, I burn the midnight oil at the office.”
While still in law school, she quickly realized corporate law just wouldn’t do: “I realized I wanted to do something of value. The Oslo Accords were signed at that time, allowing many murderers back into Israel. Some of my classmates and I thought it was wrong, especially in the case of Mahmoud Abbas – who masterminded the 1985 hijacking of Italian cruise ship the Achille Lauro.”
“The terrorists demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners – or else they would kill all Jewish passengers. When Israel refused, they grabbed Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly Jew in a wheelchair, shot him and threw him overboard,” she said. “When Abbas was allowed back into Israel, we petitioned the Supreme Court on behalf of the Klinghoffer family to bar him from the country.”
The court tried to convince her and the three other students behind the petition to pull their motion: “We were rather scared… I walked into that courtroom and argued that Leon’s blood was crying out. When I walked out, I got the worst stomach ache I ever had.”
Two weeks later, the court rendered its ruling: “The court agreed that Leon’s blood was indeed crying out, but said that ultimately, the decision was political and therefore Abbas was granted entry. Still, the court excused the filing fees.
“That was when we knew that was what we wanted to do – to fight for the victims. To speak for those who cannot speak for themselves,” she said.
The domino effect
The 2000 al-Aqsa Intifada made Darshan-Leitner and her colleagues step up their activities.
“That period saw new legislation that enabled legal action against countries that sponsored or supported terror,” she said. “We followed the Human & Civil Rights Organizations of America, which was fighting neo-Nazis in court and bankrupting them through repossession writs on their funds and property, and we decided to apply that model to the Middle East war on terror.
“At first, we filed token lawsuits, because we didn’t know how the court would treat them,” she said. “We filed a claim on behalf of one of the families of the 2000 Ramallah lynching victims and were granted a temporary seizure order for Palestinian Authority funds for the amount named in the suit – NIS 64 million (approx. $18.3 million).”
Several other lawsuits followed both in Israel and the United States, where the ILC went after the PA, Iran and Syria. Some two years later, Darshan-Leitner and her colleagues began seeing results.
The first ruling, in the case of a victim of a 1996 Hamas bus bombing in Jerusalem, set a legal precedent – declaring that the PA could not enjoy impunity.
The demands of such complex cases eventually forced Darshan-Leitner to leave her private-sector job. That, compounded with the enormous costs of flying expert witnesses and victims across the globe, soon took a heavy financial toll on her family, leading her and her colleagues to the realization that they should form an organization.
In 2002, Darshan-Leitner partnered with two other attorneys to form “Shurat HaDin—Israel Law Center.” The beginning was not easy: She and her husband began raising funds for the ILC, “And we had to sleep in the car, because we couldn’t afford a hotel… The first time I received a check for $10,000 from a lawyer in New York was a true ‘wow’ moment. We had a rough couple of years.”
‘Frustration is a luxury’
The ILC now enjoys an annual budget of $1 million, but the Leitners still travel the globe, raising funds for the legal representation of hundreds of terror victims in hundreds of various courts worldwide.
“This isn’t about the cost of one rifle or one missile, this is about hundreds of millions of dollars that terror organizations invest in populations in order to garnet their support,” she said.
“We have $1 billion-worth of rulings against terror entities, including $600 million that have been seized and frozen. These are assets what will eventually find their way to the victims.”
The ILC receives no government funding or aid of any kind. “The State can’t afford to head such cases. It can’t go after terror groups and Nazi war criminals because it has fluctuating political interests, it is party to international treaties and it has to contend with foreign relations, which may be affected by any such international action.”
Frustration, says Darshan-Leitner, is a luxury she has no time for: “When I successfully possess millions of dollars that would have found their way to a terror entity, prove a terror group or a terror-sponsoring country is liable for an attack, and naturally – when I’m able to see terror victims awarded large sums of money – the sense of satisfaction is enormous.”
“Obviously, this will never bring families’ loved ones back, or regrow the victims’ severed limbs, but it gives them the opportunity to pull themselves up from a difficult situation,” she said.
Darshan-Leitner says she is driven by a Jewish-Zionist sentiment – “for the good of the State of Israel and Jews everywhere.”
Her current focus in a civil suit – the first of its kind – filed in the Federal Court in Washington, against 97-year-old Bernhard Frank, a former SS official who personally signed mass death orders for Russian and Ukrainian Jews during WW2.
Darshan-Leitner is currently trying to have Frank extradited to Israel.
“The extradition process is lengthy and I will be sorry to see Frank die before he answers for his crimes,” she said. “This is a rare opportunity for a historic step. Now more then ever, as the death camp generation is fading and new Nazi groups emerge, we have to demand restitution for the victims.”
“The message has to be unequivocally clear – Nazi criminals will pay for their actions, even if decades have passed,” she concluded.