By AP and Times of Israel staff
The State of Israel on Friday moved to quash a subpoena issued to a former Israeli security official to testify as a star witness in a landmark court case filed by families of victims of suicide bombers who accuse the Bank of China of facilitating terrorist funding via accounts in the US.
The case has forced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to choose between supporting victims of Palestinian terrorism and risking a diplomatic rift with China, and it seems that decision was made Friday even though the document noted that “the motion was not made lightly.”
“The State of Israel is steadfastly committed to doing everything within its power to bring terrorists and their sponsors to justice, to prevent future terror attacks, and to support victims of terrorism and their families,” the motion filed to American federal court read, adding that ”the subpoena must be quashed because it violates Israel’s sovereign immunity, it seeks sensitive national security information that is protected as foreign state secrets.”
Critics say that after initially encouraging the claims against the bank, Israel faced second thoughts, fearing it could jeopardize valuable trade ties with China if it allows the former official, who is sworn to secrecy, to testify.
“We are deeply concerned and disappointed to learn of the move by the Israeli government to prevent the inclusion of Uzi Shaya’s testimony in the case against the Bank of China,” said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, an Israeli lawyer involved in the case, in a statement Saturday. ”This motion asserts that Israel will forgive the supporters and perpetrators of acts of terror against Israelis and Jews. This is unacceptable. ”
Darshan-Leitner is representing 22 families of people who were killed in Palestinian suicide bombings.
Darshan-Leitner added that the need for “financial engagement” with China was understandable, “but not at the cost of abandoning these families who have had loved ones murdered by the Palestinian terror groups who we allege moved funds through the Bank of China.”
She further accused Netanyahu of “hiding ulterior motives or interests because everything Shaya is prepared to discuss was already laid out in a previous affidavit and has already been publicly stated.”
The families accuse the government-owned Bank of China, through its US branches, of serving as a key conduit in transfers of money to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Palestinian groups that have killed hundreds of Israelis.
The family of Daniel Wultz, a 16-year-old American who was killed in a 2006 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv carried out by Islamic Jihad, is pursuing a separate but related case against the bank.
The families are seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages in US courts. With claims based in part on US anti-terrorism laws, a verdict against the bank could also potentially affect its ability to do business in the United States.
While these cases are legally separate, they all depend heavily on the testimony of Shaya. The ex-counterterrorism agent has emerged as a key witness in determining how much the Bank of China knew about the financial transfers.
According to court documents, Shaya was part of a delegation of Israeli counterterrorism officials who met with Chinese officials in April 2005, warning them that Hamas and Islamic Jihad were transferring large sums of money to their militants through the Bank of China. At that meeting, the Israelis asked Chinese officials to “take action” to prevent further transfers.
Shaya was scheduled to appear for questioning in New York on November 25.
US District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin, who is hearing the case, said at a July hearing that Israel’s position could be a “make-or-break decision” for the case.
“This may be the only person who really has the knowledge as to what transpired at the meeting,” according to a transcript.
In an August 29 letter to lawyers for the victims, Shaya said he wanted to testify but did not yet have permission to do so.
“In light of my moral and national obligation and my commitment to the war on terror, I am inclined to give a deposition,” he wrote. “However, thus far, the State of Israel has not yet formulated its final position on the matter.”
Netanyahu has fashioned himself as an expert on fighting terrorism for his entire political career. And signs of official Israeli involvement in the case are everywhere.
The claims against the bank include detailed listings of account numbers, dates and precise sums of money that were transferred over several years— information that would almost certainly require professional intelligence work to obtain.
In addition, another former Israeli security official in the prime minister’s office, Shlomo Matalon, submitted a sworn statement in 2009 outlining some of the transfers and attesting that the Israelis had warned Chinese officials about the transactions. Despite such warnings, he said the bank continued to carry out transfers for Islamic Jihad and Hamas.
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