The Jerusalem District Court handed down a precedent-setting ruling July 8 holding the Palestinian Authority (PA) responsible for acts of terror, even those perpetrated by Islamic Jihad or Hamas. The ruling was issued in the case of 17 claims for damages brought against the PA by families of Israeli victims of terror attacks over the past 20 years. The families were represented by attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, founder of Shurat HaDin, a nongovernmental organization that conducts massive lawsuits against terror organizations.
The first lawsuit was brought by the family of a soldier, Vadim Nurzhitz, who was beaten to death in October 2000 by an enraged Palestinian mob after wandering, by mistake, with another soldier, Yossi Avrahami, into the Palestinian city of Ramallah. Palestinian police took the two soldiers to a local police station, where crowds murdered them in cold blood and then abused their bodies. The lynching, documented by an Italian TV cameraman, generated widespread shock in Israel and abroad and was considered a catalyst of the second intifada, the five-year (2000 to 2005) Palestinian uprising against Israel that resulted in the loss of some 1,050 Israeli and over 3,000 Palestinian lives.
An additional claim for damages was brought by the Gavish family. The parents, grandfather and grandson were murdered by a terrorist who infiltrated their home in the settlement of Alon Moreh in 2002. The family of Yosef and Hana Dickstein, murdered along with their young son in a 2002 shooting attack in the southern Hebron Hills, was also a claimant. Other claimants include some 60 Israeli tour guides who alleged that their livelihood was hurt by the second intifada. All the claims were combined into one lawsuit due to their precedent-setting nature, adding up to over 1 billion shekels ($280 million) in total.
In his verdict, Judge Moshe Drori ruled that the PA, both under its late PLO leader Yasser Arafat and under incumbent Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, acted as if it were taking responsibility for terror attacks after the fact and even encouraging them, even if it did not plan them and its own people did not carry them out. Drori ruled that the responsibility of the PA and of its main component, the PLO, was measured on four levels: ideological, financial, practical and media-related. Drori ruled that the PA bears responsibility for the first three.
Drori said the following actions led him to attribute responsibility to the PA: the naming of streets and town squares after the terrorists; the holding of memorial ceremonies for the “martyrs” who attacked Israelis; and the release of Palestinian terrorists jailed in Israel. Drori also referred to the fact that PA leaders Arafat and Abbas declared that all the prisoners “were sent by us” and the PA had been paying them and their families monthly stipends ever since. Some prisoners were even promoted according to military ranks during their incarceration in Israel, with a commensurate pay increase, and the families of martyrs had been granted economic benefits.
Responding to the ruling, attorney Darshan-Leitner said, “The Palestinian goal was genocide against Jews in Israel, and therefore it must now pay.” This ruling ignores the Palestinian position that sees martyrs and prisoners as freedom fighters fighting the Israeli occupation and its injustices.
The judge’s ruling raises three key issues:
The Jerusalem District Court: Last year, former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked transferred the jurisdiction over Palestinian petitions against Israeli authorities — for example, against confiscation of their private lands — from the purview of the Supreme Court to the Jerusalem District Court. While Shaked cited administrative considerations, the Jerusalem court is known for ruling in Palestinian cases exactly as the political right expects it to.
Judge Drori’s controversial verdicts: The former deputy president of the Jerusalem District Court is known for his controversial rulings. In November 2018, for example, he handed down a precedent-setting ruling that allows any Jew, even non-Israeli citizens, to sue terrorists in Israel under provisions of the 2018 Nationality Law. When his name came up in 2009 in connection with a seat on the Supreme Court, former Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch received dozens of letters from people who accused him of racism. Among the rulings cited was one Drori handed down in the case of a yeshiva student, Itamar Biton, who ran over a supermarket cashier. Drori decided not to convict him, explaining that a criminal record would damage Biton’s chances of being appointed to the rabbinical court and saying Biton had expressed remorse “in the spirit of Maimonides.” That same year, the financial daily Globes analyzed Drori’s rulings and found that Hebrew law heavily influenced all his significant verdicts. Drori saw himself as being on a mission to imbue Israeli state law with ancient Hebrew law. Or as Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich of the United Right-wing Parties said: “We want to restore the Torah justice system.”
Israeli public opinion: Public opinion has been shaped in recent years to a large extent in the spirit of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion that the PA encourages terrorism and that Abbas is its main instigator. His claims fly in the face of the continued close coordination between the PA security forces and Israel’s security agencies that have successfully uncovered many terror plots, as well as Abbas’ public adherence to the cooperation that he once dubbed “holy.” Nonetheless, Netanyahu ignores these aspects of the relationship, which is maintained despite the stalemate negotiations between the sides on a permanent resolution of the conflict and despite Abbas’ often declared opposition to acts of violence and advocacy of diplomacy. Netanyahu insists that the Palestinian leader is a war-mongering, inciting enemy driven by hatred of Jews. In determining that the PA is liable for a series of terror attacks during the second intifada, Drori made no reference to the security cooperation with the PA, creating instead a false impression of the PA as an entity dedicated since its inception some 25 years ago to carrying out terror attacks.
According to Darshan-Leitner, following the ruling, the plaintiffs will appeal to the Ministry of Finance demanding that the PA accounts be confiscated. If Israel's PA funds are indeed confiscated, this is another layer to the hundreds of millions of shekels of the PA that have been frozen in Israel since April, following the Israeli law freezing the funds to the PA over payments to security prisoners and their families. As a result, the PA is in danger of economic collapse.
The district court has yet to rule on the amount of damages it will reward the claimants against the PA, but Judge Drori’s ruling blends in well with the prevailing Israeli perception of Abbas as responsible for terror attacks against Israelis.