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August 2, 2011 10:11 am

Justice Elusive for Americans Killed in Gaza

avatar by Steven Emerson

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Mark Parsons. Photo: John Parsons.

Since Oct. 15, 2003, John Parsons of Wayne, N.J., has fought for a measure of justice for his brother Mark, one of three Americans murdered by terrorists in Gaza on that date.  But the Palestinian Authority has blocked the FBI from investigating the murders of Mark Parsons, 31; John Branchizio, 36; and 30-year-old John M. Linde, Jr. All three were employees of DynCorp, a Reston, Virginia firm that provided security for U.S. officials based in Tel Aviv.

Today, nearly eight years later, no one has been brought to justice for the crime.

John Parsons told the investigative Project on Terrorism that the State Department and FBI have failed to press the issue for fear of undermining PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah organization. FBI officials declined repeated requests for interviews about the investigation.

In May, the FBI released 124 pages of documents about the case under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The documents show that the Bureau and State Department officials moved quickly to investigate, with a seven-man FBI team arriving on the scene the following day. But the crime scene was not secured; allowing unruly mobs to contaminate evidence, and U.S. investigators were struck by rocks as they tried to collect evidence.

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The situation on the ground was dangerous and that no one was in control – so much so that the U.S. officials thought they might be kidnapped or killed. The American investigators hurriedly collected as much physical evidence as possible and headed straight back across the border to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.

The heavily redacted FOIA documents suggest the U.S. investigation has been hampered by infighting between State Department and FBI officials. The documents provide no information on the killers’ identities or what progress has been made in the investigation.

The murdered men were providing security that morning for an American diplomatic convoy travelling from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to Gaza City to interview Palestinian applicants for Fulbright Scholarships, which enable them to teach or study in the United States.

Around 10:15 a.m., just minutes after the convoy had crossed the border from Israel into Gaza, the three armor-plated vehicles neared the entrance of the Jabaliya refugee camp. That was when a massive roadside bomb containing between 150 and 200 pounds of TNT went off underneath the middle vehicle, wounding one American and killing Parsons, Branchizio and Linde. The vehicle flipped into the air and landed upside down. Witnesses said the blast left a crater at least 15 feet wide and five feet deep. One of the Americans’ bodies flew almost 40 feet away, with human tissue and blood scattered over a wide area.

“This was my family’s 9/11,” John Parsons said.

Later that day the London Telegraph reported that a crowd of young Palestinian men gathered near the crater to celebrate the bombing. “They deserved what happened to them,” the men said. American investigators who reached the scene that day were targeted by roughly a dozen Palestinian youths while a crowd of several hundred watched. According to an Associated Press account:

“As the angry crowd chanted ‘Allahu Akbar – God is Great’ – the Americans rushed back into their cars, surrounded by nervous Palestinian security officers with rifles raised. Palestinian police beat some people in the crowd while pushing the spectators back, and the cars sped away under a hail of stones.”

From the outset, it seemed clear that the bombing had been carefully planned to kill Americans. U.S. convoys, usually comprised of several armored SUVs with diplomatic license plates and accompanied by Palestinian security forces, were relatively easy to spot. Four months earlier a roadside bomb had narrowly missed a U.S. convoy traveling on the same road.

President Bush condemned the attack and blamed Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat for blocking security reforms that could prevent terror. “The failure to create effective Palestinian security forces dedicated to fighting terror continues to cost lives,” Bush said. He called Arafat’s failure to dismantle terrorist organizations “the greatest obstacle to achieving the Palestinian people’s dream of statehood.”

Arafat said he “strongly condemn[ed] this awful crime which targeted American observers who came on a mission of peace and security.”

Jibril Rajoub, a security advisor to Arafat, promised to thoroughly investigate the attack and declared himself “100 percent sure” the PA would catch the perpetrators. A day later PA security forces announced they had arrested seven suspects, which included members of the Popular Resistance Committees, a loose coalition of terrorists affiliated with Hamas; Palestinian Islamic Jihad; Abbas’ own Fatah organization; and even members of Palestinian security services. The PRC initially claimed responsibility for the attack, but later rescinded the claim.

In reality the investigation had been compromised from the start. The bombing occurred near a manned Palestinian checkpoint. “Immediately after the attack, journalists photographed Palestinian police officers standing by as onlookers cheered and roamed the crime scene, destroying critical evidence,” wrote Matthew Levitt, director of the Terrorism Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Parsons said an FBI agent investigating the case told him the Bureau had never been able to interview witnesses or gather evidence on the ground. Bomb technicians and forensic efforts were prevented from entering Gaza to investigate.

In early 2004 (just 48 hours after the United States offered an award for information in the case of up to $5 million through the State Department’s Rewards for Justice program) the Palestinian Authority charged three members of the PRC “not with murder or attempted murder, but with manslaughter in connection with possessing explosive devices,” wrote Levitt. Neither the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv nor the victims’ families were informed in advance about the hearing, which took place in military court.

One month later, the trial reconvened in a civilian court, which ordered that the defendants would be released because “no evidence” was offered against them. Despite the judicial order, they remained in jail pending Arafat’s authorization of their release. When that didn’t occur, PRC members stormed the jail and freed the accused. Seven years later, they remain free, and no one has been tried in connection with the crime.

In September 2004, Musa Arafat – a cousin of Yasser Arafat and the head of PA Military Intelligence at the time – said the PA knew who the killers were but would not arrest them. “The Palestinian security forces knew who was behind the killing three Americans in Gaza nearly a year ago, but cannot act against the factions while the fighting with Israel continues,” he said.

During a visit to Israel and the West Bank on Feb. 7, 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that she “had been assured by President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority’s intention to bring justice to those who murdered three American personnel in the Gaza in 2003.”

But no real progress has occurred. John Parsons says he got virtually nothing in response to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request he filed in 2005. In December 2006, a blogger named Rich Richman filed a FOIA request of his own, asking the State Department to provide all documents regarding the murders. The following July, the State Department provided a few documents, but none that would shed light on the killers’ identities.

Members of Congress pressed the State Department and Abbas for answers, but to no avail. In 2007, Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., then the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida., then the ranking member of the full committee, introduced H.R. 2293, a bill instructing Secretary of State Rice to report to Congress about what is being done to bring the murderers of Parsons, Branchizio and Linde to justice.

“While I am sickened by this deplorable act, I am surprised that for too long our State Department and the Palestinian Authority have done little to bring the murderers of these Americans to justice,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a House floor speech urging her colleagues to pass the bill. “These families and others who have lost loved ones should not have their grief compounded by the lack of justice from our own system.”

Ackerman’s office issued a statement explaining that the bill “requires a highly detailed report from the State Department every six months on the precise nature of Palestinian efforts to bring to justice the killers of the three American security contractors. The report requires specifics on the number of Palestinian man hours devoted to the case, the number of arrests and interrogations and the extent to which the Palestinian Authority’s leadership is personally involved in resolving the matter.” The legislation passed the House of Representatives by voice vote on July 16, 2007. The following day it was referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which never brought the bill up for a vote. Congress has been silent on the issue since then.

In September 2007, Parsons’ congressman, Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., sent a letter to Rice urging her “to do everything in your power” to ensure that the perpetrators are caught and requesting to be kept apprised of developments in the investigation.

Four months later Pascrell received a reply from Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Bergner, who blamed the lack of progress on the bloody June 2007 coup by Hamas, in which it which seized absolute control of Gaza.

The Bush Administration has made clear to the Palestinians, “We are committed to continuing to pursue justice with the responsible Palestinian authorities” in the case, Bergner wrote. “With Hamas in control of the Gaza strip (sic), however, the investigation of this deplorable incident has not been able to proceed.”

Parsons said that in October 2010, he spoke with an official in the FBI’s “victims’ assistance” office who surprised him by announcing that the Bureau now considered the case “solved” even though none of the perpetrators was in custody.

After that, Pascrell sent another letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to do everything in her power to resolve the case diplomatically to ensure justice for the victims’ families. “They have waited far too long, and the United States must never stop pursuing their killers,” he wrote in a letter to Clinton.

Although State was committed to catching the killers, Assistant Secretary of State Richard R. Verma replied in January, the inability of the PA to extend its authority to Gaza had “complicated efforts to make progress in the case.”

The State Department’s response is disingenuous and misleading, Parsons said, the pointing out that the PA’s noncooperation has been the reality for seven-and-a-half years – and that it has been a constant during periods of Hamas and Fatah domination. During this period, Washington has provided billions of dollars worth of aid to the PA and both the Bush and Obama administrations have embraced the idea of creating an independent Palestinian state next to Israel.

“What are we getting for our money and support?” Parsons asked. He believes that the new reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas should make it impossible for Abbas to put forward the fiction that Hamas is principally to blame for the failure to capture those responsible for the murders of Parsons, Linde and Branchizio.

U.S. aid to the PA should be withheld “until they bring to justice the perpetrators,” Parsons told the IPT.

Others, however, appear to want the issue to go away. Veteran FBI officials declined comment on this case, and neither the State Department nor Ros-Lehtinen responded to repeated requests for comment on the investigation into the murders. Major news organizations such as ABC, NBC, The Washington Post and New York Times have ignored his repeated efforts to speak with them about the case, Parsons said.

He expressed skepticism the killers will never be found and said he is not surprised by the lack of interest in his brother’s case from Foggy Bottom and Capitol Hill. “They were bodyguards. They were supposed to take a bullet for someone,” Parsons said in summarizing what he believes is the prevailing attitude in Washington about the crime.

As for those who murdered his brother: “They’ve gotten away with murder.”

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