Congress set to pass bill to help terrorism victims win compensation from Palestinian Authority

Congress set to pass bill to help terrorism victims win compensation from Palestinian Authority
© Greg Nash

Congress appears set to approve legislation intended to help American victims of terrorism win compensation from the Palestinian Authority.

The Promoting Security and Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act of 2019 would call on the State Department to facilitate negotiations on behalf of American victims and their families to settle multimillion-dollar claims with the Palestinian Authority.

It also clarifies language on how U.S. courts can establish “personal jurisdiction” over the Palestinian Authority by providing guidelines for saying when the Palestinian governing body is subject to the American justice system.

The final text was negotiated between Sens. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordFormer Sen. Tom Coburn dies at 72 Burr requests ethics investigation into stock sale, denies wrongdoing Senior GOP senators object to direct payments at caucus meeting MORE (R-Okla.) and Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinCOVID-19 and the coming corruption pandemic Encryption helps America work safely — and that goes for Congress, too Democratic lawmakers demand government stop deporting unaccompanied children MORE (D-Calif.) and is expected to pass the House and Senate this week as part of the 1,800-page appropriations package meant to fund the government through the end of next year. The text was added to the appropriations package on Monday night.

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have worked for over a year to craft the language, which is an amendment to the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA). That law passed last year and was meant to close loopholes that allowed the Palestinian Authority to avoid paying a $655 million verdict to American victims of Palestinian terrorist attacks.

A U.S. appeals court in 2016 vacated the multimillion-dollar verdict, ruling that it was unable to establish “personal jurisdiction” over the Palestinian Authority and that it was not subject to the U.S justice system.

The ATCA was drafted in response, and established that any foreign government that has a physical presence in the U.S. and accepts U.S. aid consents to personal jurisdiction.

The Palestinian Authority responded to the December 2018 passage of the bill by shuttering its offices in the U.S. and rejecting the remaining $60 million provided by the Trump administration for joint security cooperation programs between Americans, Palestinians and Israelis.

That left American victims of Palestinian terrorism without an avenue to pursue compensation from the Palestinian Authority, while jeopardizing one of the few successful counterterrorism efforts between Israelis and Palestinians. The administration also blocked itself from being able to put any money behind its yet-to-be-released peace plan.

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The new bill would restore the funding for security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

David Schenker, the assistant secretary in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, testified in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in October that the administration was anxious for Congress to pass a fix to the ATCA, saying it has earmarked $35 million for the joint security program in the president’s fiscal 2020 budget.

He also said the administration has an “enormous aid package” for Palestinians included in the peace proposal, drafted by President TrumpDonald John TrumpCDC updates website to remove dosage guidance on drug touted by Trump Trump says he'd like economy to reopen 'with a big bang' but acknowledges it may be limited Graham backs Trump, vows no money for WHO in next funding bill MORE’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump shakes up WH communications team CNN's Jake Tapper takes aim at Trump over coronavirus response: Do you have a plan? Private equity firm with ties to Kushner asks Trump administration to relax rules on loan program: report MORE.

While the Palestinian Authority has cut off communication with the administration, accusing it of bias towards the Israelis, the ATCA was a legal barrier that prevented it from accepting any U.S. funds. The authority has also directed all humanitarian organizations to reject U.S. funding out of fear of being held accountable for personal jurisdiction. The Lankford and Feinstein text excludes payments to nongovernmental organizations as consenting to personal jurisdiction.

The bill negotiated by Lankford and Feinstein would shield the Palestinian Authority from personal jurisdiction when conducting official business at the U.N. and authorized business with U.S. officials, and it would allow the plaintiffs in the 2016 case to get the $655 million judgement despite the appeals court reversal.

The 2016 decision emanates from Sokolow v. Palestine Liberation Organization, a lawsuit brought forth by 11 American families who were either injured or had relatives injured and killed in at least seven terrorist attacks that occurred around Jerusalem between 2001 and 2004.

These included shootings and suicide bombings in Jerusalem, with 33 people killed and more than 450 wounded. An original court ruling in 2015 found the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian Liberation Organization liable under the Anti-Terrorism Act and awarded the plaintiffs damages of $218.5 million, which tripled to $655 million under the rules of the ATCA.

“This is the second time in fourteen months that Congress has stepped in to make clear that the U.S. terror victims deserve justice after all these years,” said Kent Yalowitz, the lead attorney representing the families on the Sokolow case.

“Now the time is right for the Palestinian Authority leadership to make amends for past misdeeds and begin a new chapter in which it puts an end to policies and practices that incite and support terrorism so that the all people in the region may live in peace, dignity, and security.”