WASHINGTON (Mar. 29)
In the murky world of Middle Eastern terrorism, at least two things are certain: Palestinian terrorists have killed 12 American citizens since the 1993 Oslo accords were signed and the United States has not extradited any suspects connected with the attacks.
An attempt to find out why the United States has not brought those responsible for planning, ordering and financing those attacks to justice ended last week with more questions than answers at an emotional U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on the issue.
The March 25 hearing, the culmination a two-year effort by the Zionist Organization of America to raise the matter’s public profile, brought together victims’ families a terrorist attack survivor, and U.S., Israeli and Palestinian government officials.
“There’s a real question whether the administration is doing what should be done,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who chaired the hearing on behalf of the Senate appropriations subcommittee responsible for foreign aid.
The hearing was the first official comprehensive discussion of the issue, which has emerged as a sticking point between the Clinton administration and Israel.
It also is believed to mark the first time that Israeli government and Palestinian Authority officials testified together before Congress.
The dispute between Israel and the United States stems from a disagreement over how to interpret evidence about who is responsible for the killings and what to do with those who are responsible.
Israel is convinced it knows the identity of the perpetrators and that the Palestinian Authority has not dealt with them adequately. The United States says the evidence Israel cites does not conclusively prove the identity of the individuals and is engaged in its own investigation.
Israel’s first choice would be to extradite the alleged terrorists to Israel, but barring that, it would like to see them extradited to the United States.
Israel has charged the Palestinians with releasing suspects they had detained.
The FBI, which is set to make its third investigative trip to Israel on the matter, believes that the Palestinians are holding at least seven suspects in custody tied to attacks on Americans.
The administration has said that if there are grounds for criminal indictments against any suspects, it would seek their extraditions.
While short on specifics, the public airing on Capitol Hill got the Clinton administration’s attention.
Specter issued an unusual request for the two senior Clinton administration officials to stay after their own testimony to hear from a woman who had survived an attack and from two parents whose children were killed in suicide bombings.
Vicki Eisenfeld, her voice cracking, recounted in chilling detail the night she and her husband received a call from the U.S. Embassy in Israel announcing that her son Matthew had been killed in a 1996 Jerusalem bus bombing. Her son, a 25- year-old rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, was one of 26 people killed by the Hamas suicide bomber.
“Help the people here,” Eisenfeld said of the victims’ families, urging the senators to encourage the Palestinians “to help us” by extraditing the suspects.
Martin Indyk. U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and Mark Richard, the deputy assistant attorney general who is overseeing the U.S. investigation into the attacks, sat at the witness table during Eisenfeld’s testimony.
Another witness. Diana Campuzano, detailed the injuries she suffered after a suicide bomber strick on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem in 1997. Campuzano, one of more than 190 people wounded during the attack that claimed five lives, is about to undergo a fifth operation to remove six screws from her skull.
Her forehead and nose have been completely rebuilt.
In response to a senator’s question, Indyk said he takes the matter “very seriously,” especially because several of the suicide bombings occurred while he served as ambassador to Israel.
Richard suggested there were at least two reasons why the United States has not yet sought any extraditions. He said it has been difficult getting information from both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In addition, there is concern over whether the evidence would stand up in an American court.
He said Israel’s response to FBI requests for investigative and forensic reports “was not as timely or forthcoming as we had hoped.” But he did say that through later direct meetings, U.S. investigators obtained the information they had sought.
As for the strength of the evidence, Richard strongly hinted that some of the confessions had come as a result of torture or police pressure by Palestinian authorities, and would therefore not be admissible in a U.S. court.
Specter reacted angrily to Richard’s report that Israel and the Palestinians had not cooperated fully in the U.S. investigation, even suggesting that he would rethink U.S. aid to Israel and the Palestinians.
“I’m not going to support funding for any country that doesn’t comply with our request for information,” Specter said.
Meanwhile, as the FBI continues its investigation, it is unclear whether the suspects will ever see the inside of an American courtroom.