January 13, 2015 / 7:03 PM / 4 years ago

U.S. trial starts over PLO role in Israel attacks

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. trial to decide the liability of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Palestinian Authority for several attacks in Israel began on Tuesday, as a lawyer for victims called the defendants’ alleged involvement “standard operating procedure” and a defense lawyer blamed others for the “horrific” violence.

Six men and six women were chosen as jurors to decide whether the defendants should pay up to $1 billion for what the plaintiffs’ lawyer Kent Yalowitz said was support for six shootings and bombings in the Jerusalem area from 2002 to 2004. The attacks killed 33 and wounded more than 450.

The trial before U.S. District Judge George Daniels adds a new dimension to the long-running Middle East conflict.

Yalowitz told jurors in the Manhattan civil trial that “time and time again,” the late PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian leaders would approve payments that they knew would further such attacks, to coerce acceptance of Palestinian goals.

“Killing civilians was standard operating procedure,” Yalowitz said in his opening statement. “If you want to intimidate a civilian population, killing randomly selected civilians is pretty effective.”

Mark Rochon, a lawyer representing the defendants, countered that jurors should not hold liable a government that employs more than 100,000 for attacks conducted by a few people who acted on their own, or at the behest of groups such as Hamas or the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

The U.S. government has designated those groups as terrorist organizations. Neither is a defendant.

“These acts were horrific,” Rochon said in his opening statement. “Nobody defends what happened. But the people who did it aren’t here.”

Rochon also rejected Yalowitz’s argument that the defendants rewarded people convicted of murder with pay, promotions and “glorification.”

He said the Palestinian Authority routinely made payments to thousands of people hurt or involved in the Middle East conflict, but not as a reward for terrorism.

The plaintiffs accused the defendants of violating the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act, and are seeking triple damages that could reach $3 billion. Any award may be subject to appeals.

The trial before U.S. District Judge George Daniels adds a new dimension to the long-running Middle East conflict.

It began less than a week after the United Nations confirmed that Palestinians will formally join the International Criminal Court on April 1.

That decision clears the way for that body to potentially open probes into alleged Israeli crimes on Palestinian lands.

Palestinians are seeking to form a state in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.


Among the jurors is a watchmaker, a fourth-grade school teacher, and an actor who freelances at a sports website.

Eighteen prospective jurors had been questioned. The two who told Daniels they have traveled to Israel were excused.

The lead plaintiff is Mark Sokolow, who along with family members said they suffered shrapnel wounds in a January 2002 bombing in downtown Jerusalem that killed one and injured more than 150. The Sokolows were in the courtroom on Tuesday.

Speaking outside the jury’s presence, Daniels rejected Rochon’s motion for a mistrial on the basis that Yalowitz wrongly told jurors that a Palestinian Authority employee had been convicted in one of the bombings. The judge said he could revisit later whether a mistrial or sanctions were justified.

The plaintiffs’ first witness was Meshulam Pearlman, who testified through a translator about a January 2004 bombing near his Jerusalem flower shop, which killed 11. Jurors watched impassively as a video of the carnage was shown.

Daniels told jurors he expects the trial to last six to eight weeks.

Last September, a federal jury in Brooklyn found Arab Bank Plc liable under the anti-terrorism law for having provided material support to Hamas. A damages trial is scheduled to begin on May 18.

The case is Sokolow v. Palestine Liberation Organization et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 04-00397.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Alan Crosby and Gunna Dickson

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