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Sunday, April 30, 2006

Vicki and Leonard take on Iran

In 1996, two number 18 buses were blown up on Jaffa Road here in Jerusalem by suicide bombers on consecutive Sunday mornings. For those who know the city, the first bus was blown up near the main post office, while the second one was blown up near the corner of Sarei Yisrael Street, just short of the central bus station.

On the second bus (if I am recalling correctly) two American students who were engaged to be married - Matt Eisenfeld and Sara Duker - were murdered. The Post this weekend has a story about how Matt's parents have managed to take the Iranian government to court in the US for orchestrating Hamas' activity - and how the US State Department has helped to prevent them from collecting the judgment they received:

The extraordinary progress the Eisenfelds have made has its roots in the garrulousness of Hassan Salameh, the Hamas operative who organized the February 25, 1996, attack. Not long after the blast, Salameh was shot by an Israeli soldier and arrested as he attempted to flee from a West Bank roadblock. Now serving 46 life terms in a Negev jail, Salameh explained every aspect of the bombing and its planning - from the time he joined Hamas, through his terror training, to the logistics of the attack and the recruitment of the bomber.

Crucially for the purposes of the Eisenfelds' legal action, he conclusively described Iran's direct role, detailing how he was smuggled out of Gaza into Egypt, to Sudan, and, via an Iranian army plane, onto a terror training base outside Teheran and back again with instructions for his bombing campaign. In Iran, "We trained in weapons, setting explosives, ambush," Salameh is quoted as having said under questioning. "We had 10 instructors, all Iranian."

"Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombing," says Leonard Eisenfeld. But through Salameh, "we were able to demonstrate that he was trained, armed and funded by Iran."


In what was by no means the only bitter irony of this whole tragic affair, it turned out the bomb that killed Matt, Sara and 24 other people on that bus was American-made - containing plastic explosive produced exclusively for the US Department of Defense. It was originally placed into a land mine designed to destroy Soviet T-54 tanks, given to Egypt as part of US military aid, deployed in a Sinai minefield, and stolen. "Evidently Iran doesn't only train suicide bombers," says the Eisenfelds' lawyer Steven Perles acidly. "It trains land-mine defusers. They got a mine out of the ground in Sinai and used it to kill a bus full of people in Jerusalem."


Along with the Dukers and the Flatow family - Alisa Flatow, a Brandeis student from New Jersey, was murdered in a bus bombing in the Gaza Strip in 1995 - the Eisenfelds received a relatively small proportion of the sums awarded, with those moneys raised against Iranian assets that have been frozen by the US government. They've used some of that payment for charitable contributions and to fund various scholarship programs. But the three families' efforts to obtain what may now total up to $900 million in outstanding damages has been hampered in the US, again ironically, by the State Department.

Speaking by phone from Washington, Perles recounts that the legal team identified a US real-estate development firm with considerable assets that turned out to be wholly owned by the Iranian government. But the bid to seize its funds was stymied by a State Department contention that the company in question could not be held liable "since it was not managed on a daily basis by the government in Teheran," says Perles exasperatedly.

(Somewhat incomprehensibly, this State Department intervention on behalf of Iran came less than 90 days after President Bush had memorably placed Iran on the "axis of evil.")

"It's absurd that we can't get to those surreptitious assets," says Perles, adding firmly, "There's legislation working its way through Congress now that'll rectify that."

Read it all.


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