A right-wing Israeli civil rights organization on Tuesday petitioned the High Court of Justice demanding that Justice Minister Tzipi Livni be made to respond to a New York court’s request for information in a landmark case filed by families of victims of Palestinian suicide bombings.
The Israeli court gave Livni a week to respond to the petition.
The American court’s request for “the assistance… necessary in the interests of justice, in conformity with Article 2 of the Hague Convention,” was delivered to the Justice Ministry on June 26, 2013, according to Shurat HaDin, the organization that filed the lawsuit against Livni.
The 22 families of terror victims, represented by Shurat HaDin director Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, are accusing the Bank of China of serving, through its US branches, as a key conduit in transfers of money to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Palestinian groups that have killed hundreds of Israelis.
The families are seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages in US courts. With claims based in part on US anti-terrorism laws, a verdict against the bank could also potentially affect its ability to do business in the United States.
“We have filed this suit today as we believe Minister Livni is culpable not only of failing in her duties under the Hague Convention, but of failing the Israeli victims of Palestinian terrorism in their quest for justice,” Darshan-Leitner said Tuesday in a press release announcing her organization’s petition in the High Court.
“The requested documents will be used by the parties in support of their claims or defenses,” wrote New York District Judge Gabriel W. Gorenstein in his request letter to the Justice Ministry in June. “Among other things, the requested documents will be used in taking the testimony of a witness located in Israel. The Court accordingly respectfully requests a prompt response to this Letter of Request.”
The judge’s letter went on to say that “Plaintiffs… contend that BOC [Bank of China] provided financial services to the PIJ (Palestinian Islamic Jihad) and Hamas, and therefore is liable for plaintiffs’ injuries, because it processed millions of dollars of wire transfers and other transactions for a BOC account-holder named Said al-Shurafa (“Shurafa”), who held multiple accounts in his name at BOC branches…Plaintiffs allege that Shurafa is an operative and agent of the PIJ and Hamas. BOC denies plaintiffs’ allegations against it and denies that it is liable to plaintiffs for their injuries.”
The requested evidence includes, according to the letter, “documents concerning an alleged April 2005 meeting in China between Israeli counterterrorism officials and ‘officials of the PRC ‘s Ministry of Public Security and the PRC’s central bank,’ during which Israeli Government officials allegedly stated that transfers to accounts of Said ZR al-Shurafa (“Shurafa”) at BOC ‘were being made by the PIJ for the purpose of carrying out terrorist attacks’ and ‘demanded that the PRC officials take action to prevent BOC from making further such transfers.’”
Gorenstein also asked for other documents detailing “protocols or other agreements between the governments of Israel and China governing the exchange of information in connection with the meetings described, and all documents concerning any protocols, understandings, requests, demands or agreements between the governments of Israel and China related to this case or the Related Cases, including but not limited to the deposition of Uzi Shaya.”
Shaya has been identified in court papers as the key witness in a closely related suit against BOC brought by the family of Daniel Wultz, a 16-year-old native of south Florida killed in a suicide bombing in Israel in 2006.
As a member of a secret intelligence unit charged with preventing funds from reaching Palestinian terrorists, Shaya participated in a number of meetings with Chinese officials and expressed willingness to testify about the content of those discussions if Israel permits him.
The case has forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to choose between supporting victims of Palestinian terrorism and risking a diplomatic rift with China.
Critics have said that after initially encouraging the claims against the bank, Israel performed an about-face, fearing it could jeopardize valuable, rapidly warming trade ties with China if it allowed the former official, who is sworn to secrecy, to testify.
Darshan-Leitner said in December that the need for “financial engagement” with China was understandable, “but not at the cost of abandoning these families who have had loved ones murdered by the Palestinian terror groups who we allege moved funds through the Bank of China.”
She further accused Netanyahu of “hiding ulterior motives or interests because everything Shaya is prepared to discuss was already laid out in a previous affidavit and has already been publicly stated.”
The claims against the bank include detailed listings of account numbers, dates and precise sums of money that were transferred over several years — information that would almost certainly require professional intelligence work to obtain.
A former Israeli security official in the prime minister’s office, Shlomo Matalon, submitted a sworn statement in 2009 outlining some of the transfers and attesting that the Israelis had warned Chinese officials about the transactions. Despite such warnings, he said the bank continued to carry out transfers for Islamic Jihad and Hamas.
Darshan-Leitner has said she planned to subpoena Stuart Levey, a former US Treasury official, as a witness who could help the case, especially if Shaya doesn’t testify.
She said she believes Levey, who monitored the financial dealings of terrorist groups, has evidence showing Bank of China accounts were used by Hamas to channel funds to operatives in Gaza. Levey’s current employer, HSBC Holdings PLC, declined comment and would not make him available for an interview.
The Bank of China declined comment. But in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China opposes “all forms of terrorism” and takes a “proactive role in global counterterrorism cooperation.” He said China also takes safeguards “to prevent any financial institutions from supporting terrorist activities.”
China has never labeled Hamas or Islamic Jihad terrorist groups.
China has a history of using its considerable economic might to voice displeasure with other countries. For three years, Beijing has frozen relations with Norway since a committee appointed by the Norwegian parliament awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to an imprisoned Chinese dissident. Diplomatic ties have been gutted, meetings canceled and economic ties hamstrung.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.