For terror-hit US families, vindication and tears after legal victory against PA
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For terror-hit US families, vindication and tears after legal victory against PA

‘Money will not bring loved ones back… but it’s what the system has,’ says lawyer who won NY verdict fining Palestinians $218.5 million for attacks

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

An unidentified Israeli woman lights candles at a memorial at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem Thursday August 1, 2002, a day after a bomb blew apart the university's Frank Sinatra International Students Center cafeteria, killing seven people, five of them Americans (AP Photo/Enric Marti)
An unidentified Israeli woman lights candles at a memorial at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem Thursday August 1, 2002, a day after a bomb blew apart the university's Frank Sinatra International Students Center cafeteria, killing seven people, five of them Americans (AP Photo/Enric Marti)

A wide range of emotions washed over members of 11 families of terror victims as they learned last Monday that they had won a civil case against the Palestinian Authority and PLO. With the jury awarding them $218.5 million in damages, which may be tripled under the US Anti-Terrorism Act, their feelings of frustration about the protracted, decade-long legal process gave way to a sense of satisfaction: justice had been served.

In the landmark verdict handed down by a 12-person jury in the federal case tried in New York, the Palestinian Authority and PLO were held accountable for seven attacks that took place in Jerusalem between January 2001 and January 2004, killing 33 people and injuring over 400. The Palestinian Authority has vowed to appeal the ruling.

“Initially I was elated to hear the verdict, then a minute later I was crying because my son is still dead,” said Katherine Baker of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, whose son Benjamin Blutstein, 25, was killed in a bombing of a cafeteria at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus on July 31, 2002.

“I am glad that liability has been attributed to the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, but it doesn’t change my life,” Baker said.

Benjamin  Blutstein, 25, who was killed in the Hebrew University bombing on July 31, 2002. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Benjamin Blutstein, 25, who was killed in the Hebrew University bombing on July 31, 2002. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Mark Sokolow, a New York lawyer who, together with his wife and two of his daughters, was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he also felt a variety of emotions when he learned that the victims had won the case.

‘Initially I was elated to hear the verdict, then a minute later I was crying because my son is still dead’

“It was a huge sense of relief that the jury reached what we thought was the right verdict. It’s wonderful to know that the US legal system works and that the Palestinian Authority can’t get away with terrorist activities,” he said.

Sokolow and the others had filed the suit in 2004, two years after he, his wife Rena and daughters Lauren and Jamie were injured in a suicide bombing on Jaffa Road.

“It’s been a very, very long haul and legal battle. We all had patience and we persevered,” Sokolow said. “It wasn’t easy, but we knew it was a positive thing to keep at it.”

According to Rachel Weiser, an attorney for the Shurat HaDin-Israel Law Center who was involved in the case, the case took approximately a decade to come to trial because the Palestinian Authority had tried repeatedly to get it thrown out on jurisdictional grounds. There were also extensive delays in the discovery process.

Attorney Kent Yalowitz, right, representing those affected by attacks in Israel in the early 2000s, hugs Mark Weiss of New York outside a federal courthouse in New York Monday, Feb. 23, 2015. The court found the Palestinian authorities liable in the attacks, with jurors awarding the victims $218.5 million in damages at a civil trial. (photo credit: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
Attorney Kent Yalowitz, right, representing those affected by attacks in Israel in the early 2000s, hugs Mark Weiss of New York outside a federal courthouse in New York Monday, Feb. 23, 2015. The court found the Palestinian authorities liable in the attacks, with jurors awarding the victims $218.5 million in damages at a civil trial. (photo credit: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

The families were pleased when the case finally came to trial, even though it brought back difficult memories.

Larry Carter of Greensboro, North Carolina, said he had never given up hope that the families would win the case, but that it has been a struggle to carry on without his daughter Diane (known as Dina after her conversion to Judaism), who was murdered in the Hebrew University cafeteria bombing.

Dina Carter, who was killed in the Hebrew University bombing on July 31, 2002 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dina Carter, who was killed in the Hebrew University bombing on July 31, 2002 (photo credit: Courtesy)

Carter recalled how it took several days for him and his family to be notified of his daughter’s death. This was partially due to confusion stemming from her name change. But it was also due to the devastating effects of the terrorist attack.

“They told us she was identified by her fingerprints, which meant that her body must have been pretty badly mutilated,” her father said.

The victims who survived the bombings and shootings bear scars that remind them daily of the attacks.

Sokolow’s wife, Rena, has lasting nerve damage from a severe injury to her leg, and one of his daughters needs constant care for an eye injury she sustained. All four injured members of the family still have shrapnel in their bodies.

‘The money is important, because if the financial penalty is severe enough, it can be a deterrent to other terrorists’

According to Revital Bauer of Jerusalem, her husband Alan carries a huge scar on his left arm from two screws that passed through it when a terrorist blew himself up on King George St. on March 21, 2002, killing three people. The couple’s son Jonathan, who is now 20, was with his father at the time of the attack and walks with a slight limp and suffers from compromised peripheral vision on account of the injuries he sustained when a screw penetrated his brain.

The prospect of further legal delays due to an appeal does not worry Bauer, who believes that the families will recover the damages awarded to them.

“We are going to see every last penny. It would seem that the Palestinian Authority has a lot of money if they are planning on dragging this out. They are just going to incur more legal costs and lose more if they push away paying what they owe us,” she said.

Although the suit is not ultimately about the money for the families, they do want to see the Palestinian Authority pay the price.

“The money is important, because if the financial penalty is severe enough, it can be a deterrent to other terrorists,” said Carter.

Baker said she entered the legal process unsure that she’d ever see a resolution, but now that the end is in sight, she is allowing herself to begin to think in more concrete terms about the foundation that she and her husband, Richard Blutstein, plan on establishing in memory of their son.

“The three things that were the most important to Benjamin were Torah, Israel and music. He also was participating in an educator’s program at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies at the time he was killed, so I think the foundation will focus on bridge building and education,” Baker said.

Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, with the Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center and representing those affected by attacks in Israel in the early 2000s, walks from a federal courthouse in New York Monday, Feb. 23, 2015, after the conclusion of the case. A U.S. jury on Monday found the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority liable in the attacks, with jurors awarding the victims $218.5 million in damages in damages at a civil trial. (photo credit: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, with the Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center and representing those affected by attacks in Israel in the early 2000s, walks from a federal courthouse in New York Monday, Feb. 23, 2015, after the conclusion of the case. A U.S. jury on Monday found the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority liable in the attacks, with jurors awarding the victims $218.5 million in damages in damages at a civil trial. (photo credit: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

The families believe that the international media attention surrounding the verdict will help spread a political message, as well.

“This shows the world who the Palestinian Authority really is. This is the entity that so many are pressuring Israel to make peace with,” said Sokolow.

Baker hopes people will learn from this case that terrorists are “just criminal thugs.”

“I don’t think they were ideological patriots or motivated by philosophy,” she said of the individuals who carried out the attacks and the organizations that encouraged and backed them.

‘This shows the world who the Palestinian Authority really is’

“They are the same as the mafia and organized crime. They must be treated as criminals,” Baker said.

Weiser said it has been a privilege to work on behalf of the families whose lives have been torn apart by terror.

“Money will not bring loved ones back or heal wounds, but it’s what the system has,” she said.

The legal victory brings a measure of relief to these victims of Palestinian terrorism, but the pain and loss they feel is with them every single day.

“It’s indescribable, and it’s always just under the surface,” said Carter. “It doesn’t get any better. You just learn how live with it, how to cope.”

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