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Verdict Against PLO in Terrorism Trial Raises Troubling Questions

When a federal court jury in New York reached a verdict last week on a lawsuit brought by American victims of terror attacks during the Second Intifada, holding that the Palestinian Authority could be held responsible, reactions were as quick as they were predictable.

The case involved ten families whose family members had been killed or severely injured by terrorist attacks during the Second Intifada. The Palestinian Authority was accused of indirect responsibility for these attacks. The decisive issue for the jury in the case seems to have been the fact that the PA continues to pay salaries to the families of the jailed terrorists who carried them out.

There is little doubt that the trial raises troubling issues. The first is the use of violence against civilians, which we unequivocally condemn. Another is how to address the very real suffering of the victims of terrorism and armed conflict, whether they be American, Israeli or Palestinian. But we must also consider how to do this in a practical manner that resists the use of victims’ suffering for political gains and contributes, rather than detracts from the prospects of resolving the conflict. In this regard, the verdict must be seen as a step in the wrong direction.

Benjamin Netanyahu added the verdict to his ongoing campaign to demonize Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. Supporters of a two-state solution fretted over the impact such a massive financial blow could have to the already feeble Palestinian economy. Palestinian solidarity activists saw one more example of how the American deck is stacked against the Palestinians.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) are sure to appeal this verdict, so it will likely be years before it is finally resolved. That, however, should not stop us from considering the difficult questions this case raises.

The most emotional of these questions regards the real human cost of ongoing conflict and how we, as a society both within the United States and in the larger global community address this. Those of us who believe that this verdict is unhelpful to the cause of peacemaking need to provide those families with a very good reason for why we would question these efforts at hitting back at those they deem responsible for their suffering.

Those families need to know that we are not ignoring their pain; on the contrary, we are acting in response to it, and working to ensure that it never happens to anyone else. This part of the equation must have nothing to do with which side the victims are on. Whatever differences and imbalances there may be between Israelis and Palestinians, the suffering of those who have lost loved ones, or have been traumatized or permanently injured by the violence is the same.

We are also presented here with an opportunity, however, to address one of the more vexing, if subtle, issues in this conflict, and that is the very fundamental power differences between Israelis and Palestinians. Those differences are historic and they are dictated on a daily basis by the gulf between occupier and occupied. But they play out in ways that can obscure the road to resolution.

The decisive point in this case seems to have been the fact that the plaintiffs were able to demonstrate that many of the perpetrators of the violence that killed and injured Americans in Israel were employees of the Palestinian Authority. Those perpetrators who are in Israeli jails often remained employees of the PA. Families of terrorists who died in the attacks continue to be compensated by the PA.

To the jury, and it’s probably safe to say, to most Americans, this is compelling evidence of PA complicity. Most Israelis would no doubt agree. An editorial in The Forward, which called the verdict “…a serious challenge to anyone…who still stubbornly believes that the current Palestinian leadership is capable of implementing a two-state solution,” saw this point as damning and suggested that the practice of paying families of terrorists must stop.

“What a powerful gesture it would be if Abbas stopped these payments,” read the Forward’s editorial. “It would remove one more piece of ammunition from the hands of Israeli leadership uninterested in solving the conflict. It would honor the victims of terror and acknowledge the rule of law. And — here we are probably being unduly optimistic — it would be a bold step to restore trust and prove, again, that this Palestinian leadership is willing to break from its violent past.”

Those points are all quite fair. And yet, the evidence of Abbas’ actions for over a decade overwhelmingly shows him to be a leader who eschews violence in favor of diplomacy and is willing to go farther than any Palestinian leader we know of to accommodate Israel’s security concerns and reach a two-state solution. Why, then, does he not stop those payments?

The answer lies in the day-to-day realities of Palestinian life, and in the harsh realities of occupation and the bitter conflict that has ebbed and flowed, but never ceased for so many decades.

At the time of the crimes in question, the intifada was raging and Israeli forces had responded quite harshly in the West Bank. The people, Israelis and Palestinians, across the political spectrum felt they were at war, under attack and they wanted the “bad guys” from the other side to stop endangering them and their children.

Israelis, quite correctly, feel that the brutal attacks on civilians in those years cannot be justified by Palestinians’ experiences under the occupation. Indeed, they cannot. International law does give an occupied people the right to resist their occupiers, but that right does not extend to attacking civilians in the occupying power’s territory. Such an act is nothing less than murder.

Palestinians, however, look at the years of the intifada quite differently. They see a massive Israeli incursion into the West Bank. According to the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, the intifada saw some 2,200 Palestinians killed who were not taking part in hostilities, as opposed to 239 such Israelis. They wonder why, when the Palestinian figure is nearly ten times bigger than the Israeli one, it is the Palestinians alone who are now being held to account.

Indeed, this is a question we should all ask.

For Palestinians, many of those engaged in violence are often the sole breadwinners of their families or at least a major source of income. For many Palestinians, however wrong we might consider it to be, these militants are seen as fighting for the independence of Palestine, for an end to the daily abuses of occupation, and ultimately, for the very lives of the people of Palestine.

If Abbas were to simply abandon those families, poverty would increase across the West Bank and so would popular opposition to the Palestinian President and his government. Even Palestinians who oppose such acts of violence, and there are a great many, would not advocate abandoning the women, elders and children who depend on the fighting-age men to the perils of increased poverty.

Cutting off these payments would be overwhelmingly unpopular among Palestinians, and that opposition is likely to undo many of the gains the Forward envisions. While it’s fair to ask what more the Palestinians can do, we should also ask what we in the United States can do, and what we might recommend to our ally, Israel, which, after all, remains the sovereign power in the territory.

The Palestinian leadership in the PA and the PLO has come a long way in their attempts to find common ground with Israel and end the occupation under which they’ve lived for almost fifty years. No one seriously believes that they were the ones leading the fight in the second intifada, nor was that the verdict reached in Federal Court this week.

Penalizing the PA because it sustains the families of convicted terrorists implies that the threat of economic ruin will dissuade terrorists from acting. Does anyone really believe that to be true? Even the plaintiffs’ case did not make the claim that the terrorists were acting under the PA’s direction, but with its tacit support, demonstrated through these payments. Militant groups are not seeking Abbas’ approval for their actions. On the contrary, Abbas has endured enormous political criticism over his security cooperation with Israel, for many years now, as they work to prevent such attacks. Both American and Israeli officials have repeatedly praised the PA’s efforts in this regard. Indeed, last year the head of Israel’s Shin Bet went so far as to publicly contradict Netanyahu’s effort to blame Abbas for rising violence in Jerusalem.

No amount of money or vengeance is going to erase a victim’s trauma, replace a lost limb, or, certainly, bring back a loved one killed by terrorism. It’s hard to see how a US civil court can play a constructive role here. Only a more forceful US, European and international policy, which presses for an end to violence on all sides and is willing to push both the parties into a reasonable agreement can do that. This is the only course that respects the blood and pain of all those who have suffered, and continue to suffer, in this conflict.