June 8, 2005

US office to focus on capture of Palestinian terrorists

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

The US Department of Justice is opening an office aimed at intensifying the effort to capture and prosecute Palestinian terrorists who have killed Americans abroad.

The opening of the Office of Justice for Victims of Overseas Terrorism was mandated by the passage last December of the Koby Mandell Act, named for the 13-year-old Israeli-American boy who was killed along with a friend while spelunking in the West Bank in 2001. The bill, which requires the US government to give equal treatment to all US citizens harmed by terrorism overseas, regardless of the terrorists' country of origin or residence, was conceived of to force US authorities to pursue Palestinian murderers of Americans in Israel more actively.

US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced the opening of the office last month, and he spoke on Sunday to a crowd of Orthodox Jews about the importance of aggressively pursuing terrorists.

"I worry that the shock, the grief and the anger that we all felt [after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001] has been diminished by the passage of time," Gonzales said at the Orthodox Union's annual dinner Sunday in New York. "I really caution against complacency. Let me assure you, at the Department of Justice we will not and have not become complacent, because the stakes have become too high."

"This new office guarantees a voice for victims and their families in the investigation and prosecution of terrorists who prey on Americans overseas," Gonzales said in last month's announcement of the office's opening. "Our commitment to these victims is as strong as our dedication to bringing their terrorist attackers to justice."

The Koby Mandell Act was passed as part of an omnibus spending bill President George W. Bush signed into law in early December 2004. The office will operate within the Justice Department's Criminal Division, and the assistant attorney general of that division is charged with appointing a director for the office. That process could take several weeks, a spokesman said.

The new office will monitor the investigation and prosecution of terrorist attacks against Americans abroad, coordinate with the FBI, the State Department and US Attorneys nationwide, and and file any necessary reports with Congress.

The establishment of the special office both serves a practical law-enforcement function and represents something of a rebuke to the Justice Department for not doing more to pursue US victims of Palestinian terrorism.

The Zionist Organization of America, which along with key members of Congress spearheaded the drive to get the bill passed last year, said the Justice Department's inaction on Palestinian terrorism had prompted the campaign for the new office.

"We had met with many Department of Justice officials and there seemed to be a lack of interest in capturing Palestinian Arabs that murdered Americans. That's why we decided we really needed legislation," ZOA president Morton Klein said. "We had a sense that the administration wanted to keep from the view of Congress and the American public the information that so many Americans have been killed by Palestinian Arabs and have gone unpunished."

A total of 52 Americans have been killed by Palestinians in Israel and the territories since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, according to the ZOA's count.

The father of one of those Americans, Alisa Flatow, who was killed in a bus bombing in Gaza in 1995, said he doesn't think the new office will do much to alter the Justice Department's traditional reticence to pursue the killers of Americans abroad.

"We see these laws, and you pray that something is happening in the background, but I just don't know," Stephen Flatow said.

"Overriding all of this is the political situation," Flatow said. He said the US government is uninterested in doing things that officialdom perceives as interfering with the peace process or upsetting the delicate relationship between the United States and the Palestinian Authority.

Curtis Cooper, a spokesman for the State Department, insisted that the US government pressures foreign governments to pursue killers of Americans-including in the cases of Palestinians.

But in the case of Flatow's lawsuit against Iran, which provided financial and logistical support for the Palestinian attack that killed Flatow's daughter, State Department lawyers went to court to block the Flatows' collection of a multimillion dollar judgment awarded by the court.

That case took place during the Clinton administration. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration began pursuing terrorists and financiers of terrorism more aggressively, including in a case this week against Florida professor Sami al-Arian, who is charged with being the US leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Stephen Flatow is slated to testify for the prosecution in that case, which he said involves the people responsible for his daughter's death.