Giving A Voice To The Voiceless

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Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Palestinian terrorism in Israel and Judea and Samaria has claimed the lives of more than 1,500 innocents, including at least 64 American citizens. Many more have been injured, leaving families across the globe impacted forever by the loss and trauma.

Nothing can bring back the lives of those murdered in senseless, barbaric acts of Islamic terrorism. But the families of the U.S. victims of Palestinian terrorism – and those U.S. victims that have survived some of the most horrific acts imaginable – are entitled to receive justice, in accordance with the law of the United States.

U.S. law provides American prosecutors the necessary tools to prosecute the perpetrators of these criminal acts. In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism Act, 18 USC Sec. 2332, which requires the prosecution and punishment, in United States courts, of individuals who murder or maim American citizens in acts of international terrorism. Since 2005, there has been an office within the Department of Justice (DOJ) – the Office of Justice for Victims of Overseas Terrorism (OVT) – to pressure the DOJ to prosecute terrorists who kill or injure Americans overseas, and to assist the living victims and their families.

The DOJ has not indicted, extradited, or prosecuted a single Palestinian terrorist who killed or maimed an American citizen in Israel or Judea and Samaria, despite the tools at their disposable, and the law which instructs the Department to do so. On February 2, Representative Ron DeSantis (R-FL), Chairman of the Subcommittee of National Security of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing to examine exactly why these American citizens and their families have never received justice.

The OVT is not accomplishing “what Congress intended,” DeSantis noted during his opening statement. The office was established as a result of the Koby Mandell Act of 2004, legislation named in honor of a 13-year-old boy who, on May 8, 2001, was murdered, along with his friend Yosef Ishran, by Palestinian terrorists in Tekoa, Israel. “The mother of Koby Mandell called the office ‘an affront to her son’s name,’ ” Chairman DeSantis added.

When the OVT was established within the DOJ in 2005, then-Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales stated, “This new office guarantees a voice for victims and their families in the investigation and prosecution of terrorists who prey on Americans overseas.” Unfortunately, the testimonies of the victims during the hearing show that the exact opposite has occurred – OVT has for the most part not communicated at all with the victims and their families.

Witness Sarri Singer, who was injured in a suicide bus bombing in Jerusalem in June 2003 and is the founder and director of Strength to Strength, an organization that supports victims of terrorism, stated during her testimony: “I’ve spoken to a number of families in my position and while their interactions with the FBI and Department of Justice have generally been professional and polite, without exception, they have received no meaningful, substantive information about the investigations of the attacks at issue and no concrete evidence that any serious investigation has even been attempted. Then there are other victims who I am in touch with who do not even know that the Office of Justice for Victims of Overseas Terrorism exists.”

“We have learned far more, for instance, over the past decade about our daughter’s killers from YouTube and Twitter than from updates received from the Office of Justice for Victims of Overseas Terrorism. To say it bluntly, I am sorry to report that there have been no updates,” Arnold Roth, whose daughter Malka was murdered by a suicide bomber at a Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem in August 2001, stated in his testimony.
Peter Schwartz, the uncle of the most recent U.S. citizen killed by Palestinian terrorism, Ezra Schwartz, murdered at age 18 during his gap year in Israel, made the point during his testimony that “There is no context or explanation that makes Ezra’s murder or Palestinian terrorism any bit less repugnant than any other terrorism in any other place and there is no reason that it should warrant any less condemnation or reaction from every civilized citizen or country on Earth. I hope that history will fairly judge the people who commit such acts and those who support them, but we cannot wait for that.”

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who does not sit on the subcommittee, took the time to attend the hearing. He was candid in his frustration that the OVT was not following its own guidelines and the law, and unrelenting in his questions to DOJ witness Brad Wiegmann, deputy assistant attorney general, National Security Division.

“What is the point of your office?” Meadows asked Wiegmann. Meadows proceeded to ask if a lack of funding was responsible for OVT’s zero accomplishments, and if there were political reasons the DOJ investigated terrorist attacks against Americans in countries other than Israel. Finally, he stated: “You’re failing at part of your mission, Mr. Wiegmann.”

Meadows asked Weigmann to make a commitment to do whatever is needed to provide regular updates to all U.S. victims of overseas terrorism and inform them of their rights. Wiegmann agreed to the request, and promised to provide a report back to the subcommittee from the DOJ in 120 days to follow up on OVT’s progress.

The Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a non-profit Washington-based pro-Israel and pro-America think tank, played a major role in orchestrating the hearing. EMET originally brought this critical issue to the attention of Rep. DeSantis, and assisted the subcommittee in providing background information and finding witnesses for the hearing.

EMET’s founder and president, Sarah Stern, was instrumental in the initial creation of the OVT in 2005. In the years since 2005, EMET has doggedly been working to educate Congress about the DOJ and the OVT’s unwillingness to do their job and make sure that any Palestinian terrorist who harms an American is brought to justice. EMET has held a staff briefing on Capitol Hill, bringing in American victims and family members.

EMET has worked with a bipartisan group of House members and senators to produce numerous letters to the DOJ, demanding prosecutions of these terrorists, and also assisted in finding co-sponsors for these letters. And on November 4, 2015, thanks in large part to EMET’s efforts, a Senate Subcommittee led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) held an oversight hearing, primarily focusing on Iranian funded Palestinian terrorism and civil lawsuits. EMET’s efforts culminated with the oversight hearing held by Chairman DeSantis.

The day following the hearing, Arnold Roth told The Jewish Press: “Some tight-roping was called for because there are very entrenched interests. The hearing was formed in a way that lead to action-oriented thinking on the part of all of the people involved and that’s a great achievement.”

He added: “The one constant that you’ll hear terror victims everywhere – and not only Jewish victims – express is their sense of disempowerment. For as long as I’ve watched the activities of EMET, its highest priority has been to respect the personal pain and the need for justice of the victims’ families. And I think that’s tremendous.”

To EMET, the hearing was a monumental step forward in achieving justice for the victims. The organization is committed to working with Congress and the American victims for as long as needed, until the justice that is so sorely lacking is served.

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