American victims of 13 terror attacks that took place in Israel have filed suit against a French bank that was used to funnel money to Hamas.
The suit alleges that over the course of three years during a period of mounting suicide bombings in Israel, the French bank, Credit Lyonnais, failed to quickly cut ties with a fundraising organization of Hamas.
The lawsuit was filed last week in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, where a judge is scheduled to hear arguments next week in a similar case against a British bank filed by the same lawyer.
For the victims, the suit represents an effort to prevent terror organizations from using banking services with the same ease as other clients.
"The only thing in my mind is I couldn't not do it," Sarri Singer, 32, said by telephone of her decision to join the case against Credit Lyonnais.
Ms. Singer, of Lakewood, N.J., was next to a Hamas suicide bomber disguised as an Orthodox Jew who murdered 16 passengers on a bus in Jerusalem in June 2003.
"If you don't sue them, you're allowing these people to get away with what they're doing. The only way to stop it is to not allow these banks to maintain these accounts for charities that are actually global fundraisers for designated terrorist groups."
The plaintiffs come from over two dozen families which suffered in Hamas- sponsored terror attacks between March 28, 2001 to August 19, 2003.
Those dates enclose a time period during which, the plaintiffs allege, Credit Lyonnais was aware that money in accounts they managed was being sent to Hamas.
Credit Lyonnais claims to have closed down the accounts in September 2003, three years after it first noticed "unusual activity" in the account in question, according to a press release by Credit Agricole, which has since acquired Credit Lyonnais.
The account belonged to CBSP, or the Commite de Bienfaisance pour la Solidarite avec la Palestine, which President Bush designated a global terrorist organization in August 2003 for its Hamas fundraising activities in France.
"The financial services that the defendant knowingly provided to Hamas by collecting and transmitting funds on behalf of Hamas (with the knowledge that CBSP fundraises funds for Hamas) assists Hamas in its recruiting, rewarding, and providing incentives to suicide bombers and other terrorists," the suit reads.
CBSP has publicly denied allegations that it is linked to terrorism. Calls for comment to the Paris office of CBSP late last night were not returned.
"Bush's demand that our offices be closed for financing Hamas is indeed surprising and even shocking," CBSP spokesman Youcef Benderbal is reported as saying to IslamOnline.net following President Bush's designation of his group.
"Everyone, especially the French authorities, knows that our efforts and donations are solely directed to charities with a defined aim of supporting the orphans and establishing development projects to benefit them."
The lawsuit claims that CBSP raised $4 million in 2002 but does not state how much of that money was placed in accounts with Credit Lyonnais.
Indeed, Credit Lyonnais is not the only bank that the attorney for the plaintiffs, Gary Osen, has sued for handing funds directed towards Hamas.
Mr. Osen has filed similar suits in recent years. Last year he sued the British National Westminster Bank for their management of accounts held by the Palestinian Relief and Development Fund (Interpal), which President Bush has also designated as a terrorist organization.
Neither the governments of Britain or France deem Interpal or CBSP terrorist organizations. CBSP accepts donations through major credit cards on its website. Interpal also accepts online donations.
In one sense, Mr. Osen's lawsuits against banks represent part of a new front on the war on terror, one in which private citizens pursue their own offensive against terror organizations. Mr. Osen said his lawsuit gains even greater significance as Hamas's financial isolation since its electoral victory is likely to increasingly depend on fundraising efforts.
"A large measure behind this goal is to cut off the flow of funds to Hamas and other armed terrorist organizations," Mr. Osen said by telephone. "The idea here is to make it far more difficult to utilize the banking system which is the lifeblood of their revenue stream. This is one weapon in the arsenal that Congress provided to interdict terror financing."
Eugene Goldstein, a plaintiff in the case against Credit Lyonnais, said he sees the suit as a skirmish in a larger battle against anti-Semitism.
"As long as there is anti-Semitism in this world nobody is going to stop these banks from doing business," Mr. Goldstein, 76, who was shot three times by a Hamas gunman, said. His son, Howard, died in the same attack. "They knew what they were doing. They were not oblivious to what was going on."
Mr. Osen has also sued the Arab Bank of Jordan on behalf of a murdered man alleging that the bank was used to send money to the families of suicide bombers.
Neither the case against NatWest Bank, filed in 2005, or the suit against the Arab Bank, filed in 2004, have progressed to trial. Many of the plaintiffs in each case are the same.
Calling the movement of those cases "painfully slow," Mr. Osen said that few civil cases offer precedent for his lawsuits.
But there is also a case to be made that Mr. Osen's suits have a good deal of precedent.
"I think we've learned in the Holocaust cases, that banks are not the neutral white hats that they historically have been viewed at," said a Los Angeles attorney, Barry Fisher, who sued in the 1990s European banks over profits made in World War II. "They are profiting at times from nefarious and ugly transactions"
A lawyer representing Credit Lyonnais refused to discuss the details of the case.
"Our response is that the complaint has absolutely no merit and Credit Lyonnais will vigorously contest the lawsuit" said Lawrence Friedman, of the firm Clearly Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, who is representing both Credit Lyonnnais and NatWest. "I'm not going to comment on the substance."