In the war on terrorism, sometimes the lawsuit is mightier than the sword. That thinking has propelled Nitsana Darshan-Leitner “to do what lawyers do best, and go after the pocketbooks of the terror organizations.”
Founded in 2003, Darshan-Leitner’s Shurat HaDin: the Israel Law Center is a Tel Aviv-based non-governmental organization whose aim is to put terror organizations — and those who support or abet them — out of business.
Over the past 14 years, Darshan-Leitner and Shurat HaDin have helped secure over $200 million for the families of terror victims, and are responsible for the freezing of an additional $600 million in assets belonging to terror organizations or state sponsors of terrorism.
Last year alone, Darshan-Leitner won a $655 million case against the Palestinian Authority and PLO on behalf of 11 American families whose loved ones had been killed or injured in attacks in Israel. That verdict was overturned, but the battle is far from over.
In the latest installment of The Times of Israel presents series, Darshan-Leitner spoke to journalist Matthew Kalman in front of a lively English-speaking crowd at the Hirsch Theater in Jerusalem on Sunday. Despite the serious subject matter, Darshan-Leitner’s storytelling and comic delivery had the audience in stitches more times than a reporter was able to count.
This lawyer’s victories aren’t always measured in cash. In 2004, when Iran failed to represent itself in a $500 million US case, Shurat HaDin went after Iranian assets in Italy. Seeing practical consequences to the court order, the regime sent dozens of lawyers to free up the frozen funds, and, in the end, managed to get the money out of Italy. But, Darshan-Leitner says, it wasn’t a complete loss.
“When we got home,” she recounted, “we were asked by the national security advisers to come and tell them about the ‘victory’ in Rome. And we said, ‘We had no victory, we lost the money.’ They said, ‘Yes, but as a result of these proceedings Iran never put its money back in Italian banks. Can you do the same thing in France, in Germany?’ And we did. It was in the midst of the intifada, and Iran needed to use the Euro, needed to support the organizations in Gaza and the West Bank, and therefore was obstructed from using the Euro, the Dollar, or the Shekel.”
‘They said, as a result of these proceedings Iran never put its money back in Italian banks. Can you do the same thing in France, in Germany?’
Darshan-Leitner first cut her teeth in front of Israel’s Supreme Court as part of a student group protesting against the entry to Israel of Muhammad Zaidan, also known as Abu Abbas. The terrorist had masterminded the hijacking of Italian cruise ship the “Achille Lauro,” during which a wheelchair-bound American Jew named Leon Klinghoffer was shot and killed. His body was thrown into the ocean.
Abu Abbas had been invited to Israel in 1994 to vote on the Oslo Accords as a member of the Palestinian National Council.
“We felt it was outrageous. So we decided to file a petition against the Israeli government. We were only students, we had no money to hire a lawyer,” she said.
“So we had a discussion, who is going to plead the case? And in the end they all voted for me. They said, ‘You are a woman. If the court gets mad, they won’t yell at you. And if they want to dismiss the lawsuit, they won’t hit you with the court costs,” she recounted.
And that’s what happened.
“They didn’t yell at me, they were very polite, but they did ask me to withdraw my lawsuit. The lawyer from the Attorney General’s office said that Abu Abbas should be allowed to enter Israel, that he was a ba’al t’shuva,” she said using the Hebrew term for penitent, drawing a chuckle from the crowd.
‘I told them that as long as Leon Klinghoffer’s blood cries out from the depths of the ocean, I will not withdraw the lawsuit’
“But, I came back, I stood in front of the judges, and told them that as long as Leon Klinghoffer’s blood cries out from the depths of the ocean, I will not withdraw the lawsuit.”
Two weeks later, the Supreme Court voted to allow Abu Abbas into Israel — but in their verdict, they quoted Darshan-Leitner.
“They said, although Leon Klinghoffer’s blood cries out from the depths of the ocean, they will dismiss the case because they can not get involved in a governmental decision,” she said. “But, due to the circumstances, they would not make us pay the court costs.”
The attorney is not without her share of controversy – among those currently in her crosshairs are corporate giants such as Facebook, Western Union, and Boeing, whom she accuses of complicity and aiding terror by allowing terrorists access to their services.
And her fellow attorneys are at times fearful and annoyed at her tactics — at least those quoted in a New York Times profile on the Israeli lawyer. One lawyer fighting for the same cause even called her efforts “counterproductive.”
The reactions are not surprising given her tenacity and willingness to try whatever it takes to achieve her ends. But it’s clear that her methods like hers can only be chalked up to pure idealism.
“What that decision by the Supreme Court told us,” she said, “was that we can come on behalf of victims, get our day in court, argue and represent those who don’t have a voice — and perhaps even get some measure of justice for them.”