Palestinian Authority Settles U.S. Lawsuit

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The Palestinian Authority has settled a federal lawsuit in Rhode Island over the shooting deaths 15 years ago of a couple driving home from a wedding in Israel, according to court papers filed Monday.

The documents don't reveal the terms of the settlement, and it's unclear how much, if any, money the Palestinian Authority offered to resolve the case.

The settlement erases a $116 million default judgment entered against the Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization for refusing to respond to the lawsuit. It also lifts a judge's 2005 order that had barred the Palestinian Authority from transferring or withdrawing assets in the United States.

Yaron and Efrat Ungar

U.S. citizen Yaron Ungar, a 25-year-old rabbinical student, and his pregnant wife, Efrat Ungar, were killed in June 1996 in a drive-by shooting by gunmen from the Islamic terror group Hamas while driving near Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem. Their infant son, Yishai, who was with them in the car, survived unharmed. Several Hamas members were convicted in the shooting.

The Ungars' relatives sued in 2000 in Rhode Island, where the lawyer representing their estate is based, under a federal statute called the Anti-Terrorism Act, which allows the estates of U.S. citizens killed by terrorist attacks overseas to recover damages. The law was enacted after Leon Klinghoffer was killed during a 1985 terrorist attack board the Achille Lauro cruise ship.

Ungar family lawyer Max Wistow declined to comment Monday, as did Palestinian Authority attorney Mark Rochon.

P.A. Shift in Legal Strategy

The settlement represents a stark shift in legal strategy for the Palestinian Authority, which for years had shrugged off the jurisdiction of the U.S. courts in this case and similar suits, refusing to make then-leader Yasser Arafat available for questioning or to participate in the information-sharing process known as discovery.

The Western-backed Palestinian Authority had argued that Hamas alone was responsible for the Ungars' deaths, but the suit alleged the Palestinian Authority and the PLO provided a safe haven and operational base for Hamas.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux in 2004 entered a $116 million default judgment against the Palestinian Authority and the PLO as punishment for refusing to respond to the lawsuit, and the following year he issued an order effectively freezing Palestinian Authority assets in the United States.

Returned Case to Rhode Island 

The Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year sent the case back to Rhode Island for more arguments on whether the default judgment, which was never paid, should be set aside after new Palestinian Authority lawyers argued they were prepared to litigate rather than ignore the cases.

But there had been signs recently that a settlement might be imminent. A hearing set for last month on whether to vacate the default judgment was indefinitely postponed without explanation. And in a recent court filing asking the judge to amend his order on the Palestinian assets, lawyers for both sides cryptically wrote that "the need has now arisen to enable the transfer of funds into two separate escrow accounts."
 
The settlement was reached Jan. 26, and both sides have "fully complied with the terms," the documents say.

The settlement follows the resolution of a similar lawsuit brought in U.S. District Court in New York over the death of Aharon Ellis, a U.S. citizen killed by a Palestinian gunman in 2002 while performing at a Bat Mitzvah in Hadera, Israel. Court papers filed last year show a settlement was reached but don't lay out the terms.

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© 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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