|Attorney Nitzana Darshan-Leitner seeks justice for terror victims and their families. | Photo credit: Yossi Zeliger|
By Araleh Weisberg
Submitted by correspondent Tom Ifrach
Attorney Nitzana Darshan-Leitner is a legal trailblazer in Israel: Over the last nine years, she and her human rights organization have filed hundreds of lawsuits against terror groups and governments that support terror and have been awarded more than $1 billion. This week, she won a lawsuit against Syria and Iran.
The late Leon Klinghoffer, an American Jew, was wheelchair bound. In 1985, he took a cruise on the Italian ship Achille Lauro, which was hijacked by the Palestine Liberation Front near Egypt. The terrorists threw Klinghoffer overboard, while he was alive, and let him drown. The incident shocked the world, including a 10-year-old girl named Nitzana. Back then, she didn't fathom that the first time she would appear before Israel's Supreme Court, it would be on Klinghoffer's behalf.
Attorney Nitzana Darshan-Leitner is considered a legal trailblazer in Israel. Together with a long line of friends and colleagues (and a husband), she founded the Israel Law Center ("Shurat Hadin" in Hebrew), a Jewish human rights organization, in 2003. Over the course of the last nine years, the organization's litigators have filed hundreds of lawsuits against terror groups and governments that support terror.
"We have been awarded more than a billion dollars so far," Darshan-Leitner said proudly in an interview with Israel Hayom. "But we have only been able to collect $120 million, which has been distributed among families of terror victims. I suppose that we will never see a large portion of the sums we have been awarded by the courts."
Next Tuesday, Darshan-Leitner will be presented with the Moskowitz Prize for Zionism. As she walks on stage to receive her award, she will likely recall the horrendous terror attacks that she had re-enacted, time and time again: with the bereaved families, in verbal sparring with the terrorists' defenders and in the battle she has waged against apathetic Israeli institutions.
"Ever since my first days as a law student, I knew that I would not be an ordinary lawyer. I knew I would want to work in something extraordinary," Darshan-Leitner recalled. And indeed, during her years at Bar-Ilan University she was always drawn to unusual fields.
"When the Oslo Accords were signed, Israel allowed arch-terrorists who had been exiled to return to their homes so that they could vote on behalf of the PLO. One of them was Abu Abbas, the mastermind of the Achille Lauro cruise ship attack. There was a group of some 20 law students who found this disturbing. We decided to petition the High Court of Justice," she said.
Nitzana was selected as the one to go into the ring. "We didn't have money to hire a lawyer. Everyone said that I should be present in the hearing because I was the only woman in the bunch, and the judges wouldn't dare yell at me, or force us to pay legal costs — which we had no way of paying. To appear in the High Court is a career climax for any attorney, and I was still a student."
"That morning in Jerusalem, in 1996, the judges tried to talk me down with goodwill. They complimented me, said I could argue like the greatest litigators, and then hinted that we didn't have a shot. But we refused to withdraw the petition. I said during the hearing: 'Leon Klinghoffer's blood is screaming from the earth.' Two weeks later, the court informed us that their hands were tied and that it was a government decision. At least we weren't stuck with the legal costs. It gave me a push. I realized that I could push the boundaries of what was possible."
A loan for a lawsuit
In the years after that High Court loss, the original group of law students, who had by then become full-fledged lawyers, continued to work together. The formative incident that ultimately prompted the founding of the Israel Law Center was the lynching in Ramallah in 2000. Israel Defense Forces Reservists Vadim Nurzhitz and Yossi Avrahami lost their way and ended up in the Palestinian city. An angry Palestinian mob assaulted them, murdered them, and mutilated their bodies – all on camera.
"When the Intifada erupted, it was only natural to go and do what had never been done before," Darshan-Leitner said. "To bring terror organizations and their supporters to justice."
"This lynching took place within the Palestinian Authority, in a police building, with policemen taking active part. It was very clear that the Palestinian Authority needed to take responsibility and pay for what happened."
Darshan-Leitner contacted Nurzhitz's family, and launched the first lawsuit against the Palestinians on behalf of terror victims. "We were asked to pay $30,000 in that first case for witnesses, translations and evidence. We borrowed the money from an acquaintance, and we promised him that he would get 400 percent interest if we won. Who thought that we would get anything out of it? But as time progressed, and we invested more and more time, I realized that we couldn't pursue this thing as a side project."
What exactly do you argue in such a trial? How do you turn political accusations into legal evidence?
"In order to prove the Palestinian Authority's culpability, an anecdotal incident was not enough. They could argue, and they did argue, that the crime was committed outside their jurisdiction, and that the police officers who participated did not receive orders to do so. We showed that these were systematic murders. The Palestinian Authority was the body instigating the Intifada in those days. It was inciting to violence in its education system, in its mosques, people were being urged to commit murder. The Palestinian Authority itself was encouraging people to admire terrorists and naming town squares and towns after martyrs. It was an immense constellation of evidence."
As a result, the court ordered NIS 64 million ($16.6 million) from the Palestinian Authority reserves to be paid as compensation, but even today, almost 12 years after the lynching, the victims' families haven't received the money. The transfer of funds is still pending appeals. "It won't be over any time soon," Darshan-Leitner surmised. "One of the challenging aspects of what we do is the battle against the Israeli establishment. The state itself should be dealing with this, and it is absurd that we, the citizens, are performing the state's duties. For years, courts in Israel viewed this issue as a legal hot potato, and tripped themselves up with empty claims. Now we are starting to see some progress, but in reality we haven't received a single verdict in Israel."
What about government ministries?
"The Defense Ministry welcomes our work, because it is a legitimate, nonviolent means of combating terror. They know that money fuels terror. The Foreign Ministry, however, doesn't always see eye to eye with us. When Yasser Arafat was in power, everyone was on our side, but afterward we began getting messages urging us to stop pursuing the Palestinians, and Condoleezza Rice pushed to expunge the [Palestinian] debts."
Why don’t you try to repair the injustice from the inside, from within the political establishment?
"I have no political aspirations. I feel that I have much more influence from without. I am not limited in any way, and I prefer to act independently, without the government. When they want me to stop, I have no obligation to do so. These lawsuits cannot be subject to political whims, you have to go all the way with them."
Placing a lien on the Shah's house
Only three days ago, Darshan-Leitner achieved another significant victory: A Washington, D.C., court ordered Syria to pay $232 million in damages to the Israeli-American Wultz family, whose son Daniel was killed in a suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv fast food restaurant in 2006. During the course of the trial, the prosecution presented proof that the Islamic Jihad, which perpetrated the attack, enjoyed funding from Syria and Iran, and also trained there.
"This is an important and exciting verdict," said Darshan-Leitner, who dedicates all her office's resources to this issue.
How do you get the governments of Syria and Iran to pay the damages? I presume that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad aren't in a rush to write a check.
"The way to obtain the compensation is through locating properties and placing liens. We found frozen accounts in the U.S. belonging to Iran. We found a house in Texas that belonged to the Persian Shah and it has been repossessed by the government. We have filed lawsuits against international banks that were active in Gaza and banks whose accounts were used to transfer money to terrorists. In Beijing we found a bank account belonging to a Hamas operative, which the Syria-based Hamas headquarters used to transfer hundreds of thousands of dollars to his brother in Gaza. The Defense Ministry asked us to take care of that one, and the account was revoked following our suit. This places obstacles on the terror organizations, and they have no choice but to smuggle cash through tunnels, in suitcases."
The trials against terror perpetrators, contrary to common belief, aren't conducted in absentia. The governments and bodies being sued are usually quick to hire a defense team. "In cases we litigate in Israel we only target the Palestinian Authority. For them it would be suicide not to hire a lawyer, because they get money from Israel, which could easily be redirected. In the U.S.? When the defendants feel the knife against their throat, they don't ignore it. Ultimately, everyone cares about their money. Syria hired former U.S. Attorney-General Ramsey Clark. Even Iran, which doesn't even recognize the American legal system, defended itself and filed an appeal after a verdict awarded us a Chicago art collection that belongs to the Iranian regime. The fact that they can't ignore us is our little victory."
At restaurants, I sit far from the entrance
The Israel Law Center is currently handling approximately 50 cases. There are seven attorneys working at the Israeli branch, but it has many affiliates around the world. The organization subsists on a $1 million annual budget, procured entirely from donations. Even when the organization sustains losses in court, it doesn't take it lying down. The appeals always reach the highest possible courts.
Darshan-Leitner, a mother of six, lives near Modi'in. She pays a personal price for the vocation she has chosen for herself. She is often abroad for prolonged periods of time arguing cases or raising funds, and frequently finds herself still at her Ramat Gan office long after midnight. "I work until one minute before Shabbat, and resume working one minute after Shabbat ends. My children pay the price — that is the real challenge. I try to hire more people and delegate authority, but I haven't been successful so far."
It can't be easy to approach families of terror victims so soon after having lost their loved ones, digging and digging into their painful story.
"It gives them hope. It lifts some of them from the depths of despair. But there is no doubt that there is heavy price. They have to relive the experience, testify in court and retell the story. In many instances the witnesses break down on the stand. The judge, the stenographer, myself, everyone cries."
And confronting terrorists' attorneys?
"Those that we argue against in court are cultured people, but I also get threatening phone calls. Fortunately, I don't understand Arabic so I have no idea what they are threatening me with."
How has this occupation affected your daily life?
"I tend to cry more. And I don't ride buses. I've noticed that when I go to restaurants, I sit far inside, not anywhere near the entrance. I don't think that I am more anxious about my kids, because everyone worries. But I also feel that I gained the faith that justice can be done. These are sub-humans, and when you bring them to justice — you are doing something."
The Moskowitz Prize
Next Tuesday, Darshan-Leitner will receive the Moskowitz Prize for Zionism, alongside Dr. Yitzchak Glick, the chairman of the emergency medical center in Efrat, and Zvi Slonim, a founder of Gush Emunim and of the Ariel University Center in Samaria. The $100,000 prize will be awarded to the three recipients by Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar.
The Moskowitz Prize, or as it is also known, the Lion of Zion prize, was established by Dr. Irving and Cherna Moskowitz as an expression of support for people who put Zionism into action in today’s Israeli society, acting for the benefit of the common good in order to ensure the strength and resilience of the national Jewish homeland.
Hundreds of candidates were submitted to the prize committee. “Nitzana Darshan-Leitner impressed the committee with her dedication, day in and day out, to preserving the honor of Israel and to pressing the legal case against those who seek to harm it and its citizens," said one committee member. "Her tenacity and professionalism have achieved results, including some about which we in this country are still unaware. People like Nitzana serve as a beacon for society."
Darshan-Leitner herself sees the prize as important recognition for her work. "Israel is fighting enemies that don't have any qualms and don't shy away from any tactic — from terror attacks to legal battles and ending with delegitimization campaigns, sanctions and boycotts," she said earlier this week.
"Receiving this prize proves that what we do is appreciated, and that our actions have widespread impact."