NEW YORK — The Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority backed a series of terrorist attacks in the early 2000s in Israel that killed or wounded Americans, a U.S. jury found Monday in awarding hundreds of millions of dollars in damages at a high-stakes civil trial.
The case has been viewed as one of the most notable attempts by American victims of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to use U.S. courts to seek damages, and the verdict is a setback for the Palestinians' image as they seek to rally international support for their independence and to push for war crime charges against Israel.
The damages could be a financial blow to the cash-squeezed Palestinian Authority, though the Palestinian authorities plan to appeal and the plaintiffs may face challenges in trying to collect.
In finding the Palestinian entities liable in the attacks, a Manhattan federal jury awarded the victims $218.5 million in damages for the bloodshed in attacks that killed 33 people and wounded hundreds more — damages their lawyers said would automatically be tripled under the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act.
Palestinian Authority Deputy Minister of Information Dr. Mahmoud Khalifa called the verdict "a tragic disservice" to Palestinians and to the international community in working toward a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"The charges that were made against us are baseless," he said.
The victims' lawyers called the jury's decision a win in the fight against terrorism.
"It's about accountability. It's about justice," attorney Kent Yalowitz said.
While the Israeli government said it had no involvement in the case, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said officials "expect the responsible elements in the international community to continue to punish those who support terrorism, just as the U.S. federal court has done."
The suit against the PLO and Palestinian Authority — and another case in Brooklyn federal court against the Jordan-based Arab Bank — had languished for years as the defendants challenged the American courts' jurisdiction. Recent rulings found they should go forward under the Anti-Terrorism Act, which allows victims of U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations to seek compensation for pain and suffering, loss of earnings and other hardship.
While the Palestinian Authority has settled some suits concerning U.S. citizens' killings, this was the first case in which it defended an Anti-Terrorism Act suit through a trial, the plaintiffs' lawyers said.
The plaintiffs aim to collect "every dollar" of the damages by pursuing Palestinian Authority and PLO bank accounts, securities accounts, real estate and other property that may be in the U.S., Israel and elsewhere, said attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, of Shurat HaDin/Israel Law Center.
That may be difficult, international law experts said.
Collecting judgments can be time-consuming in any case and all the more arduous when they involve a foreign entity with a complicated status as an international actor, noted Jens David Ohlin, a Cornell Law School professor who specializes in international law. The Palestinians gained observer status at the United Nations in 2012, clearing the way for them to join various international organizations.
Diplomacy and foreign policy considerations could enter the equation for countries where the possible assets are held, said Karen Greenberg, the director of Fordham Law School's Center on National Security.
"This is why this case has always been so high-profile — understanding what the consequences would be," she said.
It concerned bombings and shootings in 2002 and 2004, during the second Palestinian uprising. Overall, the second uprising killed around 3,000 Palestinians and more than 1,000 Israelis.
Jurors, who deliberated for less than two days, heard dramatic testimony from relatives of people killed and survivors who never fully recovered. One, Rena Sokolow, described how a family vacation to Israel in 2002 turned to tragedy with a bomb blast outside a Jerusalem shoe store.
The Long Island woman testified that blood flowed so quickly from a broken leg she thought she would die.
"I looked to my right and saw a severed head of a woman about 3 feet from me," she said.
The plaintiffs also relied on internal records showing the Palestinian Authority continued to pay the salaries of employees who were put behind bars in terror cases and paid benefits to families of suicide bombers and gunmen who died committing the attacks. Yalowitz put up a photo of Yasser Arafat on a video screen, telling the jury that the late Palestinian leader had approved martyrdom payments and incited the violence with anti-Israeli propaganda.
"Where are the documents punishing employees for killing people?" Yalowitz asked. "We don't have anything like that in this case."
Defense attorney Mark Rochon had argued there was no proof Palestinian authorities sanctioned the attacks as alleged in the lawsuit, brought by 10 American families, even though members of Palestinian security forces were convicted in Israeli courts on charges they were involved.
"What they did, they did for their own reasons ... not the Palestinian Authority's," he said, arguing that it was illogical to conclude that payments made after the attacks motivated the attackers in the first place.
"Do you have any evidence that they caused these attacks? No," he said.
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 institution knowingly did business with the terror group.
A separate phase of the Brooklyn trial, dealing with damages, is set to begin in May.