On July 9, an Israeli court ruled that the Palestinian Authority was responsible for several attacks by Palestinian terrorist organizations against Israel — a landmark decision that could, and should, have international implications.
The ruling by Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Drori – which he submitted as he went into retirement – regarded lawsuits submitted on behalf of Israeli victims of Palestinian terrorism against the Palestinian Authority (PA), the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and senior PLO and PA leaders.
The main question that the lawsuits raised was whether or not the PA was directly responsible for Palestinian terrorist attacks carried out against Israelis. The lawsuits related to 17 different Palestinian terrorist attacks which cumulatively murdered 34Israelis. The attacks occurred in 1996 and between 2000 and 2002.
The question of the PLO/PA’s direct role in terrorism is one that Israeli and U.S. officials have shied away from since the PLO and Israel embarked on the so-called peace process in 1993. The PLO, which was founded in 1964, and its component organizations were the architects of modern terrorism.
The peace process between the PLO and Israel was predicated on the assumption that the PLO would abandon terrorism and advance the cause of peaceful coexistence with Israel. Only then could Israel recognize the legitimacy of the PLO as a peace partner, and begin transferring control over land in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Gaza to the PLO and its leader, Yassir Arafat.
Yet from the moment the PA was first established in 1994, Israel suffered from a steep increase in terrorism. From 1993-2000, when the peace process was in full swing, Palestinians murdered 269 Israelis in terror attacks. That was higher than the number of Israelis murdered by Palestinian terrorists in the 15 years preceding the peace process.
In July 2000, the Clinton administration convened a peace conference at Camp David whose goal was to forge a final peace deal between Israel and the PLO/PA. Israel, led by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, offered the Palestinians statehood and full sovereign control over Gaza, and sovereign control over 96 percent of the West Bank. Barak’s offer also included massive Israeli concessions in Jerusalem that would have led to the redivision of the city and the transfer of sovereign control over the Temple Mount – Judaism’s most sacred site – to the would-be Palestinian state, led by the PLO.
Arafat rejected Barak’s offer. He returned to the West Bank and ordered the heads of his security services and his Fatah faction of the PLO to prepare for a massive terror campaign against Israel. That campaign began in late September 2000. Israel was only able to defeat the terror campaign in 2004-2005. During the course of the terror war, Palestinian terrorists murdered more than 1,100 Israelis. Some ten thousand Israelis were wounded.
Throughout this entire period and since, Israel, the United States, and (of course) the European Union avoided asking how responsible the Palestinian Authority was for the terrorism raging against Israel.
The reason for their avoidance was clear. If they acted on the evidence, which showed the PA was directly involved in much of the terrorist violence against Israel and its citizens, they would be compelled to accept that the PLO’s pledge to abjure terrorism was a lie.
The PLO remained a terrorist organization. And as its executive arm for controlling the areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that Israel transferred to PLO control, the PA itself was a terrorist organization.
The policy implications of this conclusion were dire. Both Israel and the U.S. would be required to reconsider their recognition of the PLO and the PA and move to designate both as terrorist organizations.
Not wanting to take this action, Israel and the U.S. limited the scope of their sanctions to specific Palestinian terror groups and avoided the elephant in the room. This policy was always problematic because the PLO/PA consistently expressed support for terrorists who attacked Israelis.
In 2002, it became untenable.
Following a massive escalation of Palestinian suicide bombing attacks that claimed hundreds of Israeli victims, in April 2002, Israel launched a counter-terror operation in the West Bank called Operation Defensive Shield. Its goal was to restore Israeli security control over the Palestinian cities and towns that the PA had transformed into launching grounds for suicide bombers. During the course of the operation, Israeli forces took control over Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah. IDF soldiers seized mountains of documents from the stronghold. Those documents showed Arafat directly ordering and paying for terrorist attacks against Israeli targets and signing off on requisitions for arms, ammunition and money to finance terror attacks and terror cells.
The Bush administration, like the government of then-Israeli premier Ariel Sharon, was unwilling to countenance the implications of the documents. So they ignored them. Indeed, then-President George W. Bush became the first U.S. president to endorse the establishment of a Palestinian state almost immediately after Israel seized the documents proving the PA’s direct involvement in, and leadership of, the Palestinian terror war against Israel.
It took another 17 years, but in his ruling Drori acknowledged the significance of those documents, and the criminal implications of the PA’s consistent support for terrorists and glorification of their crimes.
Drori determined that the PA and the PLO were directly responsible for the attacks, both due to actions they took before the attacks were carried out, and due to actions they took in the aftermath of those attacks.
The judge also determined that the PA was directly responsible for several of the attacks because it financed them and ordered them to be carried out. He determined that the PA was responsible for other attacks because it glorified and financially rewarded the terrorists who carried them out, and paid pensions to the terrorists’ families.
As the Jerusalem Post reported, only some of the 17 attacks were carried out by groups like Fatah, that are part of the PLO. But while acknowledging that some of the attacks were carried out by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad terror groups, which are outside the PLO, Drori ruled that the PA was ultimately responsible for the attacks “based on official PA statements inciting, taking credit for and supporting all terrorist attacks” during the terror war.
Drori noted that “the PA not only provided logistical and financial support to terrorists, but bankrolled terrorists and their families as well as naming streets, squares, schools and sporting events after so-called ‘martyrs’ [that is, terrorists] killed while carrying out attacks.”
Drori further noted that the PA’s so-called “pay to slay” policy, which devotes more than six percent of the PA’s overall annual budget to paying salaries to terrorists jailed by Israel for committing terrorist attacks against Israel, is a form of official sponsorship of terrorism. The PA’s pay scale is sliding: the more Israelis a terrorist kills, the more money he receives. If the terrorist is killed, then his family receives the payments.
From a financial perspective, Drori’s ruling leaves the PA and the PLO liable for damages to Israeli victims of Palestinian terrorism. Due to Drori’s retirement, the level of damages will be determined by another judge. But they can reach as high as a billion shekels, or $279 million.
From a political perspective, the implications of Drori’s judgment are harder to predict.
Attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner heads the Shurat HaDin organization, which is dedicated to seeking legal redress for victims of Palestinian terrorism. She filed several of the lawsuits on behalf of terror victims that led to Drori’s ruling.
Darshan-Leitner was firm regarding the implications of the ruling. In a statement to the Post, she said that the Palestinian terror war was an attempt to achieve political ends that the PLO was unable to extract at the negotiating table with Israel. Specifically, she explained, “The Palestinian cause was genocide against Jews in Israel.”
She added that the court’s ruling proved that the Palestinian terror war “was not a popular uprising, but a planned and deliberate war against the civilian population of Israel.”
The PA’s “pay to slay” policy remains in force today. PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas prefers to forego both U.S. financial aid and Israeli financial transfers, which last year were conditioned on the PA ending the payments to terrorists.
Abbas insisted that the payments to terrorists must continue because “we actually sent them, so we are committed to them. We have to pay them.”
If the United States and Israel accept the evidence that led to Drori’s decision, the policy implications are clear. The PLO and the PA are terrorist organizations, not political actors. And they should be so designated and treated accordingly.