RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian leaders vowed Tuesday to appeal a U.S. federal court decision that held the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority liable for six terrorist attacks in Israel that killed and wounded Americans more than a decade ago.
A jury in Manhattan on Monday awarded $218.5 million in damages for the attacks, which occurred from 2002 to 2004. Several Americans were among the more than 30 people killed and hundreds wounded. Lawyers said the judgment would probably triple to $655 million under the provisions of the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs hailed the decision as “historic.” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called it “a moral victory” for victims of terrorism.
Alan Bauer, one of the plaintiffs, said, “It’s amazing that 12 people off the streets of New York came to this conclusion.” He was injured in 2002 when a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up as Bauer was walking down a Jerusalem boulevard with his son.
Palestinian officials pledged Tuesday to fight the decision through the appeals process, saying that the court did not have jurisdiction and that the Palestinian government did not order or pay for the attacks. The arguments were earlier rejected by a lower-court judge and jury.
Additionally, the Palestinians said they do not have the money to pay the damages, which would represent a significant portion of the Palestinian Authority’s annual budget of $4.2 billion. The authority depends on more than $1.6 billion in aid.
“There is no money,” PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi said at a news conference here. “Maybe they can get some furniture from our offices in Washington.”
Ashrawi said the ruling would not dissuade the Palestinian Authority from moving forward in April at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where it will push for war-crimes prosecution of Israel. The Obama administration and the Israelis have warned the Palestinians against going to the ICC, saying it would further damage relations with Israel and would not help them get a sovereign state.
“We are going to the ICC, despite the blackmail and pressure,” said Ashrawi, who described the New York lawsuit as part of the “pressure campaign,” though it was filed in 2004.
The Palestinians plan to focus their war-crimes complaint against Israel on civilian deaths in the 50-day Gaza war last summer and continued Jewish settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, said Ashrawi, who testified in the trial in New York.
Angered by Palestinian moves at the ICC, Israel has withheld for two months the transfer of more than $250 million in customs duties collected on behalf of the Palestinians. Palestinian civil employees are now being paid reduced salaries. WAFA, the official Palestinian news agency, reported Tuesday that Israel also will withhold customs duties next month.
If the Palestinians present a case against Israel to the ICC, Congress may move swiftly to withhold $400 million in annual aid from them.
The combined loss of monthly customs duties and U.S. aid, as well as the court-ordered damages, could lead to the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority. If that occurred, Israeli troops could be forced to return to cities in the West Bank to maintain order and the Israeli government would be responsible for civil affairs in the territory.
On Saturday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said there were fears that the Palestinian Authority could collapse in the immediate future unless it is given the tax revenue being withheld by Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing a tight reelection campaign, said in a statement that Israel expects the international community “to continue to punish those who support terrorism just as the U.S. federal court has done and to back the countries that are fighting terrorism.”
At the news conference in Ramallah, Ashrawi denied that the Palestinian government had orchestrated the attacks.
“There were no instructions, no payments,” she said, although the perpetrators were employed by the PLO and the Palestinian Authority.
Money given to the surviving family members of the “martyrs” and to Palestinian plotters held in Israeli prisons was more akin to “social security” and “welfare” payments, Ashrawi argued.
Referring to the attackers, defense attorney Mark Rochon told the Manhattan court last week that “what they did, they did for their own reasons . . . not the Palestinian Authority’s.”
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, director of the Shurat Hadin Israel Law Center, said the jury rejected that argument.
“You can’t really say that these individuals who carried out the attacks were not employees of the Palestinian Authority. You can’t deny they were police or security who worked in the PA security establishment and that they did these attacks on their own without the PA knowing,” said Leitner, who worked with lead plaintiff lawyer Kent Yalowitz to bring the case to trial.
If the attackers were lone wolves, why pay their families? she asked.
“In our case,” said Bauer, the plaintiff, “there was a fair amount of evidence that individuals high up in the Palestinian Authority were involved in planning and supporting the attack.
“My wife, my son and I all testified, and we had to go back to those moments on King George Street, go back to the ICU. We had tried to put those memories away, and the box had to be opened again,” he said. “Luckily, the lawyers for the PA did not do a cross-examination.”
Eglash reported from Jerusalem. Daniela Deane in London and Adam Taylor in Washington contributed to this report.