AP - Meshulam Perlman says he will never be able to forget the horror he witnessed after a deadly suicide bombing of a bus in a busy district of Jerusalem in 2004.
"Bodies, corpses were flying. They were flying onto balconies and rooftops," says the 70-year-old flower shop owner. "People were severed in two, severed into pieces. ... It was a worse scene than a scene of war."
Perlman's account gave jurors a taste of what's to come at a trial stemming from a lawsuit claiming Palestinian authorities sanctioned the bus bombing and other terror attacks in Israel in the early 2000s.
The civil case in Manhattan and another in Brooklyn have emerged as the most notable attempts by American victims of Palestinian-Israeli conflict to use U.S. federal courts to seek damages that could reach into the billions of dollars.
The lawsuits against the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority and the other against the Jordon-based Arab Bank had languished for years as the defendants challenged the American courts' jurisdiction. But recent rulings found that they should go forward under the Anti-Terrorism Act, a more than 2-decade-old law that allows victims of U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations to seek compensation.
A third civil case brought in 2005 in Brooklyn federal court by victims of terrorists attacks in Israel against the United Kingdom-based National Westminster Bank was revived by a federal appeals court in September. That lawsuit seeking unspecified damages said the bank maintained accounts and transferred funds for the Palestine Relief & Development Fund, also known as Interpal, from 1987 through 2007. The U.S. designated Interpal as a global terrorist group in August 2003.
Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, called the cases "a new chapter in how the courts address terrorism."
"I'm paying attention because these cases in a way are highly symbolic and breaking new ground in terms of sharing responsibility for alleged acts of terrorism and sometimes acts of terrorism," she said.
Greenberg said the lawsuits are calling into question established institutions such as banks and "starting to go at some of the structural facilitators in terrorism."
Last year, a Brooklyn jury decided that Arab Bank should be held responsible for a wave of Hamas-orchestrated suicide bombings that left Americans dead or wounded based on claims the financial institutions knowingly did business with the terror group. It was the first time a terror-financing claim against a big bank had gone to trial.
A separate phase of the Brooklyn trial dealing with damages, set to begin in May, will feature testimony from victims.
By contrast, the jury at the Manhattan trial is being asked to consider liability and damages at the same time, meaning the evidence will be a mix of a paper trail and testimony — from family members of people killed in the attacks and from those who survived but never fully recovered — that could get emotional.
Revisiting the bloodshed by taking the witness stand can be painful for some plaintiffs, particularly those who lost a child, said Gary Osen, a plaintiffs' lawyer in the Arab Bank case.
"These are people who haven't forgotten, but try to block out what they can just to get through the day," he said.
In opening statements this week, plaintiff attorney Kent Yalowitz urged jurors to focus on the personal tragedies — like that of a boy whose serious head injury in a bombing left him disabled for life — instead of the global implications of the larger conflict.
"Great minds might disagree about the political issues between these peoples," Yalowitz said. "That's not what this case is about. ... The plaintiffs are 10 innocent American families. Not the government of Israel. What was 7-year-old Yoni Bauer's crime? What did he do wrong?"
The plaintiffs also displayed a photo of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, claiming that he had a hand in the attacks before his death in 2004.
"Time and time again, the evidence will show, Arafat and other PA and PLO officials approved and directed payments to people engaged in terrorism, knowing that this was what these terrorists were up to," Yalowitz said.
The defense denies the officials were privy to the attacks, and has cautioned jurors to not let the victims' stories cloud their judgment on the question of responsibility.
"These were tragic and sad and senseless events, and I am not going to ask you to turn your hearts away and ignore that sadness," said defense attorney Mark Rochon. "But I am going to tell you that even when the emotions run high, even when people are sharing these sad and heartbreaking events, remember, take that deep breath and remember we are not here to decide whether these are bad or sad things."
On Arafat, he added, "Some people say PLO and they think Yasser Arafat or they think bad things. I hope you don't."
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