Congress at its best
The pursuit of justice for U.S. victims of Palestinian terrorism is an issue that is beyond partisan politics, the U.S. Congress demonstrated this month. On Feb. 2, the National Security Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a groundbreaking hearing on seeking justice for American victims of Palestinian terrorism in Israel and the disputed territories.
Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), chairman of the subcommittee, and Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), the ranking member, agreed on the critical nature of the issue at hand. Since the Oslo accords, at least 64 Americans, not including two unborn children, have been murdered by Palestinian terrorists. Yet, since 1991 the Justice Department has not prosecuted a single Palestinian terrorist who has killed or wounded Americans in Israel and the disputed territories, even though U.S. law requires prosecutors to do so.
The Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a non-partisan pro-Israel and pro-America think tank based in Washington, has been calling for oversight hearings regarding the unwillingness of the Justice Department to prosecute Palestinian terrorists who have harmed or killed Americans overseas, and originally brought the issue to DeSantis’ attention.
Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism Act in 1990, which requires the prosecution and punishment, in U.S. courts, of individuals who murder or maim American citizens in acts of international terrorism. And in 2004, Congress passed the Koby Mandell Act, which called for the establishment of the Office for Victims of Overseas Terrorism, an office within the Justice Department created to serve as a voice for U.S. victims of overseas terrorism.
DeSantis remarked during his opening statement at the hearing, “We cannot allow the lives of our own American citizens to be devalued as merely pawns on a diplomatic chess board. This effectively excuses the terrorists and invites more attacks and leaves lasting scars on our own citizens due to justice being denied.”
“We must make every effort to ensure that the U.S victims of overseas terrorism and their families are afforded the justice they deserve,” Lynch said.
Witnesses at the hearing included Sarri Singer, a survivor of a suicide bus bombing in Jerusalem in 2003; Arnold Roth, whose daughter, Malka Roth, was murdered by a suicide bomber at a Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem in 2001; Peter Schwartz, whose nephew, Ezra Schwartz, was murdered by Palestinian terrorists while studying and volunteering in Israel in November 2015; and Brad Wiegmann, the deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department’s National Security Division.
EMET and its founder and president, Sarah Stern, have been fighting for justice for American victims of Palestinian terrorism in Israel and the disputed territories for more than two decades. In 2004, working on a bipartisan basis, she spearheaded the passage of the Koby Mandell Act, which was named in memory of a 13-year-old boy born in Silver Spring who was murdered by Palestinian terrorists in Israel on May 8, 2001. She is a personal friend of Koby’s parents, Sherri and Seth Mandell, and promised that she would help pass the legislation and continue to seek justice for Koby and all U.S. victims of Palestinian terrorism.
In the years since 2005, EMET has been educating members of Congress and their staffs about the Justice Department’s and the Office for Victims of Overseas Terrorism’s unwillingness to fulfill their responsibilities. EMET, which regularly holds one-on-one meetings with staffers on Capitol Hill, has met with more than 100 offices to explain the issue. EMET has held a staff briefing on the Hill, bringing in American victims and family members. EMET has also worked with a bipartisan group of representatives and senators to produce numerous letters to the Justice Department demanding prosecutions of these terrorists, and also assisted in finding co-sponsors for these letters. And on Nov. 4, thanks in large part to EMET’s relentless efforts, a Senate subcommittee led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) held an oversight hearing focusing on Iranian-funded Palestinian terrorism and civil lawsuits. EMET’s efforts culminated with the oversight hearing held by DeSantis, for which EMET provided background information and recommended witnesses.
The Office for Victims of Overseas Terrorism was created in 2005 to serve as a voice for U.S. victims of overseas terrorism, to ensure that the rights of victims and their families are respected, and to monitor the investigation and prosecution of terrorist attacks against Americans abroad, among other activities. In the implementation memo, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales acknowledged that prosecuting such terrorists for their attacks on Americans “are and shall continue to be a high priority.” But the testimonies of the witnesses at the hearing, and the zero prosecutions of these Palestinian terrorists, indicate just the opposite — the office is not doing its job.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) told the Justice Department witness at the hearing, “You’re failing at part of your mission.” His persistent line of questioning led Wiegmann to agree to ensure that the department fulfills all of its responsibilities to victims and their families, as well as to provide a report back to the subcommittee in 120 days.
In the words of Sarah Stern, it is EMET’s hope that “as a result of the hearing, the justice so sorely owed these American families will finally be served.”
Jennifer Dekel is director of research and communications at the Endowment for Middle East Truth.