In January, a New York District Court judge ruled that the Arab Bank would stand trial for funding terror attacks in Israel. Judge Nina Gershon thus rejected the bank's request to dismiss the suit filed against it by 1,600 plaintiffs, most of them Israelis harmed in terror attacks. The judge's decision constitutes a victory for all those who wish to dry out the funding sources of terror organizations: Judge Gershon adopted the plaintiffs' position that because the bank worked with organizations that raised funds that eventually reached terror organizations, this was a prima facie violation of U.S. and international law.
The suit was filed by the Ramat Gan law firm of Scott Mann and Gavriel Mairone. Aside from 100 American citizens, all the plaintiffs are Israelis. This suit is a key element in a series of lawsuits filed at the court by other Israeli attorneys, including Tali Eitan (who is representing a small number of plaintiffs), and American lawyer Lee Wolosky (who is being assisted by Israeli attorney David Mena).
The American firm coordinating all these suits is Motley Rice of Charleston, South Carolina, which specializes in damages cases. This law office is also representing victims of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, and has won damages suits against tobacco companies on behalf of people harmed by smoking. The suits filed in the New York court relate to terror attacks carried out by Hamas, Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. They involve dozens of terror attacks, most of them suicide bombings, starting with the January 1995 attack at the Beit Lid junction.
The suits are asking for a total of $3 billion to $5 billion, but the plaintiffs are a long way from seeing even one cent. The next stage will be the submission of sworn statements, the presentation of written evidence and the pre-trial. Then the trial itself is expected to be held.
However, even if the plaintiffs win in court, it is still not clear how much they will win in damages, if anything. In the suit, filed in December 2004, the plaintiffs argue, "The chairman of the Arab Bank, Abdul Majid Shoman, has repeatedly and very publicly expressed the Arab Bank's stance supporting the eradication of the State of Israel." The suit quotes a statement by Shoman from a June 2000 interview with the Jordanian newspaper Al Destour: "The Jews have no rights to Palestine," he says. He believes "a just solution would be the return of all Palestinian lands to their legitimate historical residents, i.e. the Palestinian people and the Arab nation." The suit adds, "Shoman said he was against a Palestinian compromise based on a partial return that included the loss of some land, and that the Jews had no right to the Land of Palestine."
According to the suit, Shoman, who died in 2005, was active in a number of committees that supported the second intifada, and called upon Arab and Palestinian businessmen to be generous in their donations. These funds included the Intifada Al-Aqsa Fund, which gave financial aid to the families of suicide bombers and Palestinians injured in the conflict.
Why did the plaintiffs decide to focus on the Arab Bank?
"We looked for someone to sue who has a connection to terror funding," explains Nehama Aloni, Mann-Mairone's chief analyst. "We discovered that the Arab Bank is leading the cash flow, by means of an organization called the Saudi Committee for Support of the Intifada. We also found that many of the Web sites raising funds for Palestinian terror organizations mentioned the bank's name many times, and that account numbers at the bank were given for contributions."
The Arab Bank is an international bank owned by Jordanian businessmen, headed by the Shoman family, and Saudi businessmen, the family of Prince Walid bin Talal. The bank has a number of branches in the United States, and 12 branches the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
In the two years that passed between the filing of the suits and their deliberation in court, the bank's attorneys have made great efforts to have them dismissed. The attorneys discovered that some of the documents and arguments submitted by Mann-Mairone are very similar to information from the Israeli intelligence community. They especially noticed the similarity to information that appeared in publications by the Center for the Intelligence Heritage (Malam) in Glilot.
Malam is an association of former members of the intelligence community (the Mossad, Military Intelligence, the Shin Bet and Nativ), and aims to commemorate its members and nurture the intelligence heritage. The non-profit organization is headed by former Mossad chiefs Meir Amit and Ephraim Halevy and other retired members of the community. A few years ago, the center established another organization, which has been arousing controversy among members ever since. This is the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, coordinated by Dr. Reuven Ehrlich, a former Military Intelligence officer and coordinator of the Defense Ministry government activities unit in Lebanon.
Under Ehrlich's management, the information center has become a "pipeline" for information and assessments that the Military Intelligence research division does not want directly associated with it. Thus, for example, Military Intelligence transferred documents on terror organization activities captured by the Israel Defense Forces in Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield to Ehrlich's center, where researchers can study them.
The symbiotic connection between Ehrlich's center and Military Intelligence aroused criticism from several members of Malam and Military Intelligence. Some also opposed the center's establishment. The opponents argue that Military Intelligence should not be connected to a propaganda body, at the expense of objective and ideologically unbiased professional analysis. Some of the Ehrlich's center's publications mention the Arab Bank.
In May 2005, the bank's attorneys sent Malam a warning letter by means of Israeli attorney Eitan Epstein, protesting that the plaintiffs in the New York suit "made extensive use of publications from the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Center for the Intelligence Heritage about the Arab Bank." The letter also stated that these publications "at the basis of the suit are presented by the Military Intelligence research division."
The Arab Bank demanded that Malam refrain from "publishing any material concerning the Arab Bank." Through its legal advisor Yehuda Tunik, Malam replied about a month later in these words: "These are documents captured by the IDF and have been authorized for publication, and the association has no connection to the use made of them by others." The letter also stated: "The attempt to connect a legal proceeding and the documents with the freedom to express a research opinion and publication - in an attempt to limit this freedom - is fruitless, and therefore the complaints directed against the association are rejected."
Address for compensation
And indeed, it appears that the connection between the suits and the Israeli intelligence community is no coincidence. Aloni previously held a position in the intelligence community that involved the closure of some Arab Israeli organizations and foundations that allegedly laundered money for terror organizations.
The suits in New York, even if they are private initiatives, can be seen as a continuation of Israeli intelligence's fight against terror funding. Some 10 years ago, Meir Dagan, currently the Mossad chief, proposed filing civil suits against parties behind terror financing while head of the Prime Minister's Office's anti-terror headquarters. Dagan continued to back this strategy as Mossad head. Israel has a special body code-named Gilgal, consisting of representatives of several units, charged with locating economic and financial connections between international companies and terror organizations, or state-sponsored terrorism in countries like Iran.
Parallel to Judge Gershon's decision, several other investigations are under way in the United States against the Arab Bank and other bodies suspected of financing terror. These are concentrated in the hands of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Congress. In addition, the U.S. supervisor of banks has fined the Arab Bank $24 million over financial irregularities and violating bank regulatory laws.
"If we win the suit, we will be able to realize the victory, because we have a clear address for the compensation," says Nehama Aloni. "The suit can serve as an important precedent. It will have implications for other banks and financial institutions, which will be far more careful before they provide services to suspicious bodies that serve as a front for terror organizations. Our suit is a kind of civil battle against terrorism."