Saturday, April 15, 2006

Hurt by Hamas, Americans Sue Banks in U.S.

The New York Times
Hurt by Hamas, Americans Sue Banks in U.S.

Not one but two Palestinian suicide bombers blew themselves up on a Jerusalem boulevard where an American college student, Jason Kirschenbaum, was strolling one night in December 2001. The blast shattered his left arm and hammered chunks of metal into his leg. But at least, he says, it left him alive.

Five months later, a suicide bomb blast hurled Gloria Kushner, a nurse, against a stand in an outdoor market, wrenching her spine. On a crowded bus, another bomber's shrapnel carved a hole in the shoulder of Sarri Singer, a youth group volunteer. Eugene Goldstein has a bullet lodged near his heart from an ambush. He does not have his son, who was killed at his side.

They are Americans who went to Israel and came home with enduring wounds after they were caught in attacks claimed by Hamas, the militant Islamic organization that took over the Palestinian government last month.

These victims of terrorism in a foreign land seek more than healing; they want justice, but lack a clear remedy. So they are trying a novel strategy: going after banks they say helped to finance Palestinian terrorism.

They are among some 50 Americans — either survivors or relatives of people killed in attacks — who have filed multimillion dollar suits in federal court in Brooklyn against three prominent international banks, Arab Bank, NatWest and Crédit Lyonnais. The suits charge that the banks helped to channel funds to Hamas, which the United States designated as a terrorist organization in 1997. Some of the suits claim that Arab Bank transferred millions of dollars in life insurance payments from a Saudi charity to families of suicide bombers, providing Hamas with a recruiting tool.

The three banks are vigorously challenging the lawsuits. They say many of the financial transactions were tiny electronic blips in their routine international business and that they were not aware of any links to Hamas or terrorism. In a motion to dismiss one of the cases, a lawyer for NatWest and Crédit Lyonnais, Lawrence B. Friedman, said the plaintiffs' efforts "to foist responsibility for their tragic circumstances" onto the banks were "misguided" and had no legal basis.

The prospects for the plaintiffs are uncertain. The suits against Arab Bank have survived a motion for dismissal, the first major hurdle in any lawsuit, but the judge in the suits against the other two banks has not yet ruled on dismissal motions.

Anti-terror litigation of this sort has few precedents. The suits are the first to focus on international banks, saying they were a central link in terror finance. In 2004 a federal court in Chicago ordered three Islamic charities and a fund-raiser in the United States to pay $156 million in damages to the parents of David Boim, who was killed by Hamas. But federal suits against Saudi Arabia's royal rulers, charging they financed al Qaeda in advance of Sept. 11, have largely been rejected by the courts.

The plaintiffs in the banking lawsuits have felt a new urgency to their cause since Hamas took over the Palestinian Authority on March 30, after winning elections in January. The United States and the European Union have cut off direct aid to the authority, and Middle Eastern banks are looking warily at handling its business, in part because of the New York suits.

While the lawyers do battle in testy letters and dense briefs, the survivors cope with injuries and memories that leave them feeling isolated.

Mr. Kirschenbaum, 22, who had left his home in New Rochelle, N.Y., for a year of study at an Israeli yeshiva, recalls the easygoing mood on Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in Jerusalem as young people flocked there on Saturday night, Dec. 1, 2001.

The two bombers detonated themselves at opposite ends of the street within seconds of each other. One was 20 feet away. With blood dripping from his pants cuff and his left arm limp, Mr. Kirschenbaum stumbled up the street. A friend took him to a hospital. Hamas soon claimed responsibility for the bombings.

The bomber near Mr. Kirschenbaum had been wearing a jacket stuffed with nails and other bits of metal. Israeli doctors dug half a dozen nuts out of Mr. Kirschenbaum's arms and legs and repaired his fractured arm. But they could not repair his outlook. He was fearful of staying in Israel, but did not feel entirely right back at home either, eventually leaving college without graduating to join his father's diamond business.

"You get all these questions," he said. "People would ask me, so what happened? How did you take it? All these questions. I would answer them. But I didn't believe anybody understood what I was going through."

Mrs. Kushner, the nurse, had recently left Florida to resettle in Israel when she was caught in the blast at the open-air market in Netanya, on the coast, on May 19, 2002. Now 69, she lives behind a scrim of pain from her damaged spine and a knee that is still painful. She had to give up her life in Israel, returning to Florida for medical care. Her days are migrations from one doctor's office to another. Her nights bring dreams of ambulances and screaming. She hopes the suits will bring financial relief from the costs of the special orthopedic treatment she needs.

For years, Mrs. Kushner said, she felt defeated, though that is changing. "I thank God for every new day. I thank him that I'm a survivor of terrorism," she said.

Ms. Singer, now 32, was in a hurry to meet a friend for a drink after work in Jerusalem on June 11, 2003. Ignoring caution, she jumped on a crowded No. 14A bus. By chance, a seat opened up. Moments later, a Hamas bomber, dressed in a prayer shawl as an orthodox Jew, blew himself up in the aisle, killing 17 people, including everyone between himself and Ms. Singer.

She remembers screaming so long that her throat ached. The shrapnel split her clavicle. That wound healed, but she has a perpetual low hissing in one ear.

Ms. Singer took the attack as a sign that she should live life even more vigorously. "Obviously, my time isn't up yet," she says. "I have more to do here."

The daughter of a New Jersey state senator, Robert W. Singer, a Republican of Jackson, Ms. Singer had been living in Israel as a volunteer for Jewish youth groups. Now she runs an Internet radio program for young American Jews and still travels regularly to Israel. She pushes herself, she said, as a way of defying the Palestinian youth who tried to kill her.

For the survivors, the lawsuits are also a means of defiance. The first was filed in July 2004 against Arab Bank, based in Jordan, which with $27 billion in assets is a leading financial institution in the Middle East. It is accused of moving money from the Saudi Committee in Support of the Intifada al Quds, a private charity in Saudi Arabia, to Hamas front organizations. Based on hundreds of documents of financial transactions, the suit claims that Arab Bank worked with the committee to compile lists of beneficiaries of life insurance payments from Hamas suicide bombers and to open accounts for them.

Arab Bank has responded that it never held accounts for the Saudi Committee or consulted with it. Rather, the bank says, it made routine electronic transfers — about 200,000 payments worth $90 million — to accounts in its Palestinian branches based on instructions from the committee's Saudi banks. The transfers went to groups in good standing with Palestinian banking authorities, according to Arab Bank, which also noted that the Saudi committee was never listed by the United States as a supporter of terrorism.

"Arab Bank never created, managed or had knowledge of any programs to finance terrorism through the Bank," it said in a statement.

But the bank has faced some setbacks. It was forced to scale back its New York operations in February 2005 after Treasury Department officials cited deficient controls against money-laundering. And last August, it agreed to a $24 million fine after Treasury investigators found it gave inadequate scrutiny to transactions with groups later designated as terrorist organizations. Judge Nina Gershon of Federal District Court in Brooklyn denied motions in September to dismiss the Arab Bank suits.

In January, the victims sued National Westminster Bank, or NatWest, which is part of the Royal Bank of Scotland, for maintaining accounts of the Palestinian Relief and Development Fund, a British charity known as Interpal. President Bush designated Interpal as a Hamas fund-raiser in 2003, and barred banks in the United States from doing business with it. NatWest responded in legal papers that United Kingdom charity regulators had twice cleared Interpal of terrorist links.

A third suit targets Crédit Lyonnais, which held accounts for a French charity known as C.B.S.P. that was designated a terrorist group by the United States in 2003. In court papers, the bank said that French authorities had cleared the charity. The judge in those cases, Charles P. Sifton, has not yet ruled on dismissal motions.

So the survivors wait. Some, like Mr. Goldstein, who is 76, and his wife, Lorraine, 74, also grieve. The day they were attacked, June 20, 2003, had been a joyous one, when they attended the wedding of a grandson. They were on a West Bank highway, with their son Tsvi driving, when two Hamas gunmen opened fire on them. Tsvi was killed instantly. Mr. Goldstein, shot three times, took the wheel and steered for several miles before overturning in a ditch. Doctors decided not to remove the bullet that sits centimeters from his heart.

A bullet ripped through Mrs. Goldstein's jaw, necessitating repeated surgery and taking away much of the motion of her mouth.

They try not to be angry. "If I spent all my energy on being bitter, it takes away from me," Mr. Goldstein said.

That sentiment was echoed by others. "It's not like I hate them," Mr. Kirschenbaum said, measuring his words. "It's just that you ask that question: Why? I don't go over to you and set off a bomb."

About the lawsuits, he said: "If you can win, it's mental, a win upstairs. You can't go over there and attack them or beat them or shoot at them. But you can attack them in this way, and say, look, this is how we want to fight back."