JERUSALEM – Palestinian officials are nervously watching a landmark terrorism trial in the United States, brought by victims of Palestinian suicide bombings and shootings aimed at civilians. They fear a negative verdict could hurt their international image at a time when they are preparing to press war crimes charges against Israel.
The $1 billion lawsuit was filed over a series of deadly attacks in or near Jerusalem that killed 33 people and wounded hundreds more during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, a decade ago. The plaintiffs have turned to the U.S. court because some of the victims were American citizens.
Although the cases are not directly linked, a ruling against the Palestinian Authority in New York federal court threatens to undermine Palestinian efforts to rally international support for a brewing battle at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. With American plaintiffs seeking billions of dollars in damages, it could also deliver a tough financial blow to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank.
The Palestinian Authority refused to comment on the lawsuit. But several senior Palestinian officials said the case is being closely watched in Ramallah and acknowledged they are worried about the outcome. The officials spoke anonymously on the advice of their lawyers.
At issue are several Palestinian attacks between 2001 and 2004 targeting civilians, including a bombing at a packed cafeteria at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, as well as suicide bombings and shootings on busy streets.
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner of the Israel-based Shurat HaDin Law Center, a lawyer who is representing the victims' families, said "it will definitely have an impact" on the Palestinians' image, saying the case is "full of evidence" that Palestinian Authority security men helped plan or carry out the attacks.
"Those involved in the attacks still receive salaries from the Palestinian Authority and still get promoted in rank while in jail," she said. Families of suicide bombers receive monthly salaries from a Palestinian "martyr's foundation," she said.
She said a militant linked to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party drove a female suicide bomber to downtown Jerusalem, where she set off her explosives on a busy street in 2002, killing an 81-year-old man and wounding dozens. The driver is currently in Israeli prison, she said.
Defense attorney Mark Rochon told jurors in closing arguments Thursday that the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization were not privy to the attacks and argued that an entire organization can't be held liable for the actions of the suicide bombers and gunmen, whom he said acted on their own.
Senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi made the point at the trial that the Palestinians were hit hard during the 2000 intifada, which in addition to the attacks saw Israeli troops battle Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on a near-daily basis. The conflict killed around 3,000 Palestinians and more than 1,000 Israelis.
"I knew and lots of my friends knew that this was counterproductive, that it really damaged our cause and didn't serve the cause of the PLO, nor the cause of freedom and justice. So we tried to prevent violence from all sides," the Jerusalem Post quoted her as saying earlier this month.
The Intifada fizzled out after Abbas took office in 2005 following the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Abbas has repeatedly condemned violence, and his forces have coordinated security in the West Bank with Israel for nearly a decade, though Israel accuses the official Palestinian media of incitement.
Members of a family from Long Island testified in early February about the attack. Rena Sokolow said the world seemed to be spinning "like I was in a washing machine," and blood flowed so quickly from a broken leg she thought she would die.
"I looked to my right and saw a severed head of a woman about three feet from me," she testified. Her daughter Jamie, then 12, suffered multiple facial wounds.
The female bomber, Wafa Idris, is widely regarded as a hero in the Palestinian territories, as are other militants who have carried out attacks.
Meshulam Perlman described to the court in January the aftermath of a Palestinian suicide bombing that targeted a crowded bus in Jerusalem.
"Bodies, corpses were flying. They were flying onto balconies and rooftops," said the 70-year-old flower shop owner. "People were severed in two, severed into pieces," he said.
The 2004 lawsuit was brought under the Anti-terrorism Act of 1991 and seeks $1 billion from the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Lawyers for the plaintiffs say any damages awarded would be automatically tripled because the claims involve acts of terrorism. The Palestinian officials said they are worried they will be faced with a hefty bill.
The Israeli government says it has no official involvement in the case.
The case was delayed for years as lawyers for the Palestinians tried to challenge the American court's jurisdiction.
Closing arguments were delivered Thursday. A spokesman for the plaintiffs said the jury could issue a verdict as soon as Monday, or it could take days or weeks.
A negative ruling would be a setback for the Palestinians' campaign to seek international recognition of their independence in the absence of a peace deal with Israel.
Disillusioned after two decades of failed peace talks, the Palestinians gained observer status at the United Nations in 2012, clearing the way for them to join various international organizations. Most notably, the Palestinians recently moved to join the International Criminal Court, where they hope to pursue war crimes charges against Israel.