Jury Selection Begins in U.S. Trial Against Palestinian Authority, PLO

Trial comes 11 years after American victims of Palestinian terrorism filed lawsuit in Manhattan federal court.

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Emergency services in action after the Sbarro bombing in Jerusalem in 2001.
Emergency services in action after the Sbarro bombing in Jerusalem in 2001.Credit: Archive: Eyal Warshavsky / BauBau

Eleven years after filing a billion-dollar lawsuit, victims of terror attacks in Israel between January 2001 and February 2004 hope to prove to an anonymous Manhattan federal court jury that the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization were behind the attacks.

Jury selection begins Tuesday in the trial, expected to last up to three months. It is occurring despite a last-ditch unsuccessful attempt by the PLO and PA to convince appeals judges that a Manhattan court does not have jurisdiction. The effort was rejected by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The lawsuit was brought in 2004 under the Antiterrorism Act of 1991 by victims of seven shootings and bombings near Jerusalem. The attacks killed 33 people and wounded hundreds more, including scores of U.S. citizens.

"The injuries remain very fresh for most of these people," plaintiffs' attorney Phil Horton said. "It is often hard to work with them because the pain is still so great. There have been a lot of tears in conference rooms."

Horton said some victims are seeking a sense of closure and many were interested in accountability as well. Numerous victims were scheduled to testify.

Any damages awarded to the plaintiffs would be automatically tripled because the claims involved acts of terrorism, he said.

"This case is really about the rule of law. Can you take the law into your own hands or not?" Horton said. "Terrorism is the opposite of the rule of law."

If successful, the plaintiffs expect to recover a substantial amount of any award, although attorneys would not be able to pursue documentation of the groups' assets until they win, he said.

"The one thing I'm sure about is they wouldn't be spending what are clearly enormous sums on the case if they didn't believe there was money to be collected at the end of the day," Horton said.

A lawyer for the PA and PLO did not immediately return a message for comment Monday.

In court papers, lawyers for the PA and PLO say a U.S. court should not have jurisdiction over the case just because the PLO maintains a 12-person office in the United States.

They say the PA and PLO's home is in the West Bank and that U.S. activities are a tiny portion of their worldwide activities.

"Given the high stakes, extraordinary burden, and substantial foreign policy consequences associated with bringing a foreign government to trial for supporting terrorism, the trial ... should not go forward in the absence of general personal jurisdiction over them," the lawyers wrote in papers submitted to the appeals court.

They also said the publicity of the trial, "some of it inevitable, some of it sought by plaintiffs, will undermine the confidence in the PA's ability to govern and contribute to a worsening of tensions in the region at a delicate moment."

In terrorism cases, juries often are anonymous.

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