Nearly fourteen years ago, an international fact-finding commission led by former United States Senator George Mitchell was charged with identifying the causes of a then-raging Palestinian uprising against Israeli military occupation and determining how to end it. The al-Aqsa Intifada had been sparked six months earlier, in late September 2000, when Ariel Sharon, then the opposition leader, visited al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, accompanied by more than1,000 Israeli policemen. Sharon’s visit was widely interpreted as a symbolic assertion of Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem’s most holy sites. The following day, Israeli forces dispersed rock-throwing Palestinian protestors with lethal force, killing four, and the situation deteriorated rapidly from there.
The “Mitchell Report” rejected Israeli government allegations that the conflagration had been deliberately planned by the Palestinian Authority with the aim of “provoking and incurring Palestinian casualties as a means of regaining the diplomatic initiative.” Instead, the report authors announced that, “we have no basis on which to conclude that there was a deliberate plan by the PA [Palestinian Authority] to initiate a campaign of violence at the first opportunity; or to conclude that there was a deliberate plan by the GOI [Government of Israel] to respond with lethal force.”
More than a decade after the al-Aqsa Intifada subsided and thousands of miles from where it began, a jury of twelve New Yorkers found themselves in the unlikely position of reconsidering Israel’s interpretation of this period in a civil suit titled Sokolow v. PLO et. al. The suit was brought under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 1991, which empowers American citizens suffering injury from international terrorism to file civil suits for damages in US federal court. The plaintiffs, consisting of ten families of US citizens wounded or killed in attacks, were represented by Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center and Kent Yalowitz of Arnold and Porter.
Shurat HaDin founder Nitsana Darshan-Leitner has claimed that “a judgment declaring that the Palestinian Authority sponsors terrorism or is involved in terrorism would make harder their efforts to become a state.” And the verdict may, indeed, wound the PA and the PLO. But if blunting the drive for Palestinian statehood is, in fact, an objective of Shurat HaDin, if not of the bereaved families, that will not be achieved by this verdict. What occurred during the al-Aqsa Intifada is no secret to the world, and the findings of a New York jury are not likely to overturn the perceptions of the international community regarding steps necessary to achieve Middle East peace.
It will, however, convince Palestinians that there is no justice to be expected from American courts. Lawsuits in this country against Israeli officials for bombings and killings of Palestinians have routinely been dismissed on grounds of sovereign immunity. However, as the United States is among the minority of nations in the world that do not recognize Palestine as a state (135 of 193 member states of the United Nations have recognized Palestine), we accord no such immunity to Palestinian officials.
Sokolow v. PLO plaintiffs brought forward evidence purporting to show that the PA and PLO financed and orchestrated the six attacks, and, by the estimate of courtroom observers, presented deeply compelling arguments of damages. The defendants did not try to deny the acts or the hideousness of the crimes but, instead, contested their liability, presenting testimony that the attackers were not under the command or control of either the PA or PLO. The defense also claimed that PA security capacity had been seriously degraded by Israel’s 2002 military foray into the West Bank that destroyed PA police stations, jails, and other assets, engendering chaos in the region.