Nearly a quarter-century ago, Sara Duker of Teaneck was murdered by Palestinian terrorists in Jerusalem.
Now the U.S. government may finally condemn a dirty little secret about that killing — that the Hamas leader who orchestrated the slaying of Duker and two dozen others on a Jerusalem bus in 1996 is being quietly paid by Palestinian officials while behind bars in Israel.
The under-the-table payments by the Palestinian Authority to operatives for Hamas, Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad terror groups that participate in attacks in Israel have long been a source of controversy in Israel as well as in the United States, especially in North Jersey, with its large concentrations of Jewish and Palestinian residents.
But U.S. officials have routinely steered clear of drawing attention to these payments, in part to preserve some measure of diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority.
Now that is about to change.
On Wednesday, Rep. Josh Gottheimer, the Democrat from Wyckoff who represents part of Teaneck, introduced a special House of Representatives resolution to condemn payments to Hassan Salameh, a high-ranking Hamas leader who orchestrated the plot that killed Duker, then 22 and a recent honors graduate of Columbia University’s Barnard College.
Duker died with her boyfriend, Matthew Eisenfeld, 25, a rabbinical student, when a suicide bomber recruited by Salameh set off a powerful explosive device on the Number 18 bus as it rolled along Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road on Feb. 25, 1996.
Duker and Eisenfeld were riding to Jerusalem’s main bus depot. From there, they planned to catch another bus to Jordan and visit the ancient Nabataean ruins at Petra. Twenty-four others died in the bombing. Another 48 people were injured.
The shocking toll from the Jaffa Road bombing — along with several other bomb attacks, including one in 1995 that killed Alisia Flatow of West Orange — helped to usher in the election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and dismantle the already frayed Oslo Peace Accords.
The Duker and Eisenfeld families, along with the Flatows, later won landmark lawsuits in federal court in Washington in which they proved that Iran helped to finance the bus bombings and train some of the terrorists, including Hassan Salameh. Although the families were awarded multimillion-dollar judgments by a federal judge, collecting the money from Iran has been difficult, in part because the Obama administration released billions in assets to Iran as part of a now-scuttled deal to curtail Iran’s nuclear weapons.
Salameh, who was arrested by Israeli counterintelligence officers within months of recruiting a suicide bomber who blew up the Number 18 bus, is believed to have received up to $300,000 over the years from the Palestinian Authority, according to a variety of Israeli researchers who have chronicled the secret payments to him and others.
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In an interview with this columnist at Israel’s Eshel Prison on the edge of the Negev Desert in 2006, Salameh acknowledged his role in the bus bombing that killed Duker. Salameh even said he knew of Duker’s name. He explained that FBI agents, investigating the case, told him that several Americans, including Duker, had been killed.
But Salameh denied he had been paid. Later, in researching a book on the bombing, “The Bus on Jaffa Road: A Story of Middle East Terrorism and the Search for Justice,” this columnist tracked down the family of Majdi Abu Wardeh, the suicide bomber who was recruited by Salameh. Like Salameh, the Wardeh family, who lived in the West Bank al-Fawwar refugee camp, denied that they received any payments for their son’s role in a terrorist attack.
Gottheimer’s resolution, along with new information that has surfaced in Israel, presents an entirely different narrative — that, in fact, Palestinian officials had long been funneling money to families of terrorists.
It’s not entirely clear how the funds to Salameh were disbursed — whether the money, for instance, went to Salameh’s family in the Gaza Strip or to someone else.
Salameh, who was sentenced to serve 46 life sentences — one for each victim of the bombing that killed Duker and additional victims of another bombing two weeks later — is not allowed to receive money while inside the Israeli prison system.
But critics of these secret payments have long said the mere fact that the Palestinian Authority offers money to terrorists — even to their families — is an incentive to continue attacks on Israelis.
Gottheimer called the money “martyr payments” as he announced his “Resolution to Stop Rewarding Terrorists,” which was co-sponsored by Rep. Tom Reed, a Republican from upstate New York and co-chair with Gottheimer of the moderate, bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus in the House. Also signing on as a sponsor was Rep. Max Rose, a Staten Island Democrat.
“This brutal practice is indefensible, and should be condemned by all who care about justice and human rights,” Gottheimer said.
After announcing the resolution Wednesday morning, Gottheimer said he was contacted by “scores” of other House members who asked to sign on as co-sponsors.
Though the resolution is largely symbolic at this point, Gottheimer said he is hopeful that it will nevertheless help to focus more attention on the secret payments and build momentum within the U.S. government to stop them.
“I think there has not been enough attention on this issue, and I think there’s a lack of awareness” across the political spectrum and the general public, Gottheimer said in a telephone interview from Washington.
Sara Duker’s mother, Arline, a Teaneck psychologist, praised the resolution as long overdue.
Reached by phone between sessions with her patients, Arline Duker called the transfer of money to terrorists the equivalent of “murder for hire.”
“That feels like the Mafia,” she said.
Requests for comment from the Palestinian Authority’s diplomatic consulate in New York City were not answered.
In Washington, the Israeli Embassy praised Gottheimer’s resolution and confirmed that payments are routinely passed by the Palestinian government to a wide variety of terrorists and their families.
“The payments made by the PA [Palestinian Authority] are in effect a tangible incentive to carry out terror acts,” said Israeli Embassy spokesman Elad Strohmayer.
Strohmayer said he had no firm estimate on how much money had been secretly passed to terrorists and their families. But he said Israeli investigators had traced payments to terrorists who received money while in prison and after their release, as well as to families of operatives who were killed while carrying out terror attacks.
Gottheimer’s resolution comes as the Trump administration has touted recent announcements by former Palestinian allies, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, to formally recognize Israel and establish diplomatic and trade relations with the Jewish state. The resolution also comes amid a contentious U.S. election season, when Gottheimer is actively seeking to firm up support within the Jewish communities of their congressional districts.
Also figuring in the timing of the resolution is an effort by students at Columbia University — Sara Duker’s alma mater — to call for a withdrawal of university investments in Israeli companies. Supporters of the resolution hope it will sway Columbia students not to support the proposed divestment.
Gottheimer said an effort by students to force a pullback of Columbia’s investments in Israel while not also condemning the payments to terrorists is an example of “bias and double standards.”
“Hopefully this will open people’s eyes,” said Sander Gerber, the chief executive officer of the Hudson Bay Capital investment firm, who has become a strident advocate in uncovering the secret payments to Hassan Salameh and other Palestinian terrorists while also trying to block the divestment efforts against Israel.
Ezra Gontownik, 26, who grew up in Englewood and is assisting Gerber in focusing attention on the payments to terrorists, said he hopes Gottheimer’s resolution will bring about a change in U.S. policy.
The payments are “mind-blowing,” said Gontownik, who was drawn to the story of Duker’s death after attending Frisch High School in Paramus — from which she graduated nearly three decades ago.
The resolution follows efforts by the U.S. government, beginning in 2015, to hold the Palestinian Authority accountable for its funding of terrorist attacks.
For now, Gottheimer’s resolution will be considered by the House Foreign Relations Committee. It’s not clear when the committee will vote on the resolution — if it votes at all. But the significance of the resolution cannot be minimized.
Once again, the Palestinian Authority is being asked to account for money used by terrorists.
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.