U.S. Jews sue Iran over daughters death

WASHINGTON — A New Jersey real estate lawyer is suing Iran over the death of his 20-year-old daughter, killed in a 1995 suicide bus bombing in the Gaza Strip. Stephen Flatow, the father of Alisa Flatow, filed a lawsuit Feb. 26 seeking $150 million in damages.

Islamic Jihad, the militant fundamentalist group that receives $2 million a year from Iran, claimed responsibility for the attack, according to court papers.

Standing next to a poster-size photo of his daughter, Flatow of West Orange, N.J., vowed to seek justice.

"I am not a sovereign nation. I cannot wage war," Flatow said at a Capitol Hill news conference.

But he can battle in the courts.

A provision of last year's anti-terrorism law allows American citizens to file suits in U.S. courts against foreign sponsors of terrorism.

"When you lose a child, you want to pull the covers over your head and make the rest of the world disappear," Flatow said. "But you can't do that."

Flatow's effort to stop Iran from exporting terrorism is not the first time he has sought to make a difference.

After Alisa Flatow's death, the family donated her organs to Israelis needing transplants. Israeli doctors credit this decision with saving three lives.

"There is no doubt that the funding spigot for international terrorism starts in Iran," said former Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) at the news conference, designed as a sendoff before attorneys filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court.

"Nothing can bring Alisa Flatow back to her family and friends. I do hope, however, that the award of large punitive damages in this lawsuit will spare other families the same suffering," said Lautenberg, who was traveling in Israel at the same time that a suicide bomber rammed his car into the No. 36 Egged bus as it approached Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip, killing Flatow and seven other passengers on April 9, 1995.

Lautenberg was joined by other New Jersey lawmakers, Reps. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.), who called the news conference, and Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.).

The Flatows are seeking damages from the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as from the Ayatollah Ali Hoseini Khamenei and the president of Iran, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

"My family has no illusions about the road ahead of us," Flatow said.

On the day of the bombing, Alisa was on her first-ever outing to the Gaza Strip. The New Jersey woman was religious and loved to sunbathe. And Gush Katif's beach provided separate men's and women's swimming areas.

Just three months earlier, father and daughter met for what would be the last time, when the Flatows traveled to Israel to visit Alisa.

Flatow told her that being in Israel was like being in the Garden of Eden. Alisa replied, "It really is, isn't it?" They spoke briefly about the need to reach peace with the Arabs.

"Her view was that it wouldn't affect her directly," Flatow says of the region's tensions. "I don't think she saw herself in harm's way being in Israel. I think she felt comfortable there; I felt she was comfortable there."

Alisa was careful. Flatow impressed a set of rules on each of the five children he and his wife, Rosalyn, have sent to Israel: Only travel to recognized destinations. Never go alone.

And always take public buses.

Alisa abided by the rules.

Now Flatow is hoping the new rules drawn up by Congress can bring solace and justice to the family and levy a financial disincentive on those involved in her death from perpetrating such a crime again.

Last April President Clinton signed a massive counter-terrorism bill that stripped away the "sovereign immunity" foreign countries enjoyed from prosecution by Americans. And in September, amendments in both houses of Congress went a step further by opening up those countries to civil suits for damages for their involvement in international terrorism.

The case, which Flatow filed in federal court last week, could set a precedent. Suits brought by the families of terrorism victims of the PLO and Libya have gone nowhere yet. Flatow knows the fight will be difficult and lengthy — at least seven years — but believes that unlike the others, he has statutory teeth behind his effort.

He also has Steven Perles, the Washington lawyer who tried to sue Germany for damages on behalf of Hugo Princz, who suffered through and survived the Holocaust as a naturalized American citizen. The case was initially thrown out when a judge determined United States courts had no jurisdiction, but in a second attempt Princz and Perles got the case heard and eventually won.

Perles intends to muster America's greatest counter-terrorism experts, marshaling testimony and evidence to buttress his claim that Iran is culpable in Alisa's death. The logic is Iran funds and supports the Islamic Jihad, which took responsibility for the bomb that killed Alisa.

According to Perles, the State Department's coordinator for counter-terrorism Philip Wilcox told him and Flatow that Iran funds Islamic Jihad to the tune of $2 million annually.

While refusing to comment directly on the Flatow case, Wilcox says that the United States is concerned about state-sponsored terrorism and is looking "for ways to bring those states into account."