Washington - Fearing a sudden change in American policy, Jewish victims of Palestinian terrorism are lobbying the Bush administration and Congress to ensure the enforcement of lawsuits against the Palestinian Authority that award them compensation.
The intense lobbying effort comes amid signs of a shift in the position of the Bush administration, which so far has not tried to block implementation of civil lawsuits against the Palestinians.
American policy is expected to face a test February 29, a deadline set by the court for filing statements in the case of Leslye Knox, the widow of Aharon Ellis, who was killed in a terrorist attack in Hadera in 2002. The State and Justice Departments therefore have until the end of the month to decide whether to file a “statement of interest” supporting attempts by the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization to overturn a judgment that granted Knox and other family members $174 million in compensation.
Such a statement, if filed, would mark the first intervention by the American government to block a civil lawsuit against the Palestinian Authority. Victims’ advocates fear it could hamper attempts to sue the Palestinians in the future.
The victims’ families, who spent two days meeting with government officials here last week, said they were not satisfied with the response they heard.
“I came out of there with the impression that I’ve never seen a more evasive meeting in my lifetime,” said Katherine Baker of Harrisburg, Pa.
Baker’s son, Benjamin Blutstein, was killed in a 2002 terrorist attack on the campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was about to return to America for a family visit when a Palestinian suicide bomber detonated himself near a group of overseas students at the Mount Scopus campus’s cafeteria. Baker, a professor at Penn State, sued the Palestinian Authority and the PLO in federal court in New York and now fears government intervention might set a precedent for her case as well.
“Every penny I can take from the terrorists is a penny less they can spend on bombs,” she said following her visit to Washington.
While no final decision has been made by the Bush administration, enforcing claims against the Palestinian Authority and freezing its assets in America are seen by some government officials as counter-productive at a time when America is in the midst of a concentrated effort to provide the Palestinian Authority with financial aid. This year Washington pledged $550 million to the Palestinians. Judgments in American courts have already exceeded $100 million per case.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that the issue of filing a statement of interest in the Knox case is still being considered.
“We are absolutely committed to defending the rights of our citizens,” McCormack said at his daily press briefing. “We are also fully committed to pursuing our national interest and defending our national interest.”
The Palestinian Authority has been trying to fend off such lawsuits for years. Compensation awarded in American courts to families of terrorism victims have led to a freeze on Palestinian Authority assets, including those of Palestinian retirement and investment funds. While initially excluding Palestinian diplomatic missions, courts have later allowed the freezing of bank accounts belonging to the PLO’s mission in Washington.
Afif Safieh, head of the Palestinian mission, said the lawsuits have made him focus “more on acrobatics than on diplomacy.” Safieh said the American government is “rethinking” its position on these lawsuits, but he had no indication whether or not the administration would intervene and seek to block the compensation.
While finding little support from the administration, families of terrorism victims did get backing from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Eight senators wrote a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week calling on her not to file a statement in favor of the Palestinian Authority.
“Victims who bring forth claims in good faith and win judgments against terrorists should not be thwarted in their efforts,” the senators wrote Rice.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman