The Jordan-based Arab Bank yesterday asked a federal judge in Brooklyn to dismiss a lawsuit brought by thousands of Israelis who claim the bank fueled terrorism by providing payments to the relatives of suicide bombers.
Lawyers for the bank said that the 4,000 foreign citizens who are plaintiffs should not be allowed to have their case heard in the American court system. They argued that terrorism against Israel does not violate any "international norm." Lawyers for the bank said that some 80 countries, most Islamic or African, do not consider Palestinian Arab suicide bombers to be terrorists.
"One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter — that holding is binding on this court," said an attorney for the bank, Kevin Walsh of LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene and MacRae.
The plaintiffs who are suing Arab Bank in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn are the victims of terrorist attacks during the second intifada and the relatives of victims. While the overwhelming majority are citizens of Israel, some plaintiffs are from Afghanistan, Moldova, and several other countries.
They claim that Arab Bank — which has an office in New York — used offices in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to distribute payments to people who could prove they were relatives of recent suicide bombers.
The plaintiffs are suing under a 217 year-old-law, the Alien Tort Statute, which has been used by foreign citizens to bring lawsuits in America's federal courts stemming from human rights violations that occurred anywhere in the world.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling last year that suggests that only the foreign victims of the most egregious human rights violations — such as genocide and slavery — can file suit under the law. One standard the Supreme Court employed was whether the lawsuits stem from violations of norms that have been accepted by "civilized nations."
The debate at yesterday's hearing was whether terrorism against Israel constitutes such a violation.
A lawyer representing the plaintiffs, Gregory Joseph, told the judge, Nina Gershon, that Arab Bank's involvement in the intifada did rise to that level, regardless of whether some countries around the world refused to condemn Palestinian suicide bombers.
"We have a bank in New York paying bounties on the bodies of dead civilians," Mr. Joseph said. At another point he said: "It would be a remarkable ruling for the court to conclude that the widespread and systematic killing of civilians was not a violation of international law."
Mr. Walsh, the lawyer representing Arab Bank, argued that whether the plaintiffs had standing in the federal courts had nothing to do with "whatever we think here in Brooklyn" and depended only on the attitude of the global community toward the Israel- Palestinian Arab conflict.
"We may regret that a uniform consensus does not exist," Mr. Walsh said. ‘But one of the reasons it has been impossible is because the very nations of the world are divided in opinion on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict."
Judge Gershon asked few questions during Arab Bank's argument, but she quickly seemed to have heard enough of it. She asked Arab Bank's lawyers to "move on" on at least four occasions. She did not issue a decision from the bench yesterday.
Last year, Judge Gershon rejected Arab Bank's motion to dismiss similar lawsuits brought by about 500 American victims of terror attacks in Israel. Those lawsuits were brought under a different law, because they involved American citizens.
Correction from August 7, 2006:
An attorney for Arab Bank, Kevin Walsh, said, "This very circuit, in United States against Yousef, has issued that very holding — that it is regrettable one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." An article on page 2 of the August 1 New York Sun failed to quote Mr. Walsh's sentence in its entirety. In his quotation, Mr. Walsh refers to a federal court decision that states: "Nor have we shaken ourselves free of the cliché that ‘one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."