[Please see the update below] Three U.S. citizens, and one Belgian national, have filed a civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. against the State of Israel alleging various injuries and damages suffered during an Israeli commando raid on their U.S.-registered ship. The plaintiffs were activists who were sailing their vessel in support of the Palestinians on the Gaza Strip suffering under what the plaintiffs allege is an Israeli blockade. I don’t have a copy of the complaint, but according to this Washington Post report, there are a couple of pretty big legal obstacles for the plaintiffs to overcome.
“The attack on the high seas was unjustified and illegal under international law,” lawyer Steven M. Schneebaum of Washington wrote in a 21-page complaint, which alleged that the military operations injured more than 150 protesters and included torture, cruel or degrading treatment, arbitrary arrest and assault.
The first problem for the plaintiffs will be overcoming the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which bars U.S. courts from hearing cases against foreign sovereigns like Israel unless certain exceptions apply. I can’t tell exactly from the report which exception the plaintiffs are trying to invoke, but the allegations of “torture, cruel and degrading treatment” etc. suggests the complaint is trying to allege such an egregious violation of international law that any defense of immunity will be deemed to have been “waived” by Israel. I am highly doubtful that this argument will succeed, and indeed, I am fairly sure it is foreclosed by precedents in the D.C. Circuit (and elsewhere).
It is possible that the plaintiffs will seek to get jurisdiction under the “state-sponsored terrorism” exception in 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(a)(1). This might seem to apply, if we accept the plaintiffs’ claims as true, except that Israel would also have be designated by the U.S. government as a “state sponsor” of terrorism in order for the exception to apply. Israel, needless to say, has not been so designated by the U.S. government, so this exception doesn’t work for the plaintiffs either.
It also appears the plaintiffs may have a statute of limitations problem as well, but I am not sure. Also, was that ship U.S.-registered? If so, which tort law would apply? Or is it a claim under international law?
So I am pretty doubtful that this lawsuit will survive a motion by Israel to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction. Indeed, I wonder at its even being filed, given the jurisdictional problems it faces. But perhaps I am missing something, and if so, feel free to let me know in the comments.
[Update: Jordan Paust and Ted Folkman point out in the comments that the plaintiffs are probably invoking either the “international agreements” exception in the FSIA or the “noncommercial tort” exception in 28 USC § 1605(a)(5), which allows an exception to immunity for claims “in which money damages are sought against a foreign state for personal injury or death, or damage to or loss of property, occurring in the United States and caused by the tortious act or omission of that foreign state…”
These are a much more plausible claims, and they depends (as Ted points out) on the idea that the raid on the US-flagged vessel means that the alleged tort occurred “in the United States.” The leading decision is Argentine Republic v. Amerada Hess, which involved an Argentine missile strike on a Liberian-flagged ship owned by U.S. interests. That case held though that the “high seas” is not “in the United States” for purposes of the FSIA. The only variation on this point I can see is that that the attack occurred on a U.S.-flagged vessel, as opposed to the “high seas.” I doubt this will fly, but I suppose it is worth a shot if I were the plaintiffs.]