TEL AVIV (Apr. 9)
For many observers, the Marwan Barghouti trial is a pageant of the absurd.
The prosecutions’ four star witnesses refuse to speak, the court stenographer can barely type and the public defender, at her client’s request, is not permitted to defend him.
As the trial resumed this week after a three-month recess, three of Barghouti’s former lieutenants were called to testify against the boss of the Palestinians’ Tanzim militia.
Each reverently hailed Barghouti when they entered the courtroom, then covered their ears as Judge Sarah Sirota addressed them.
Two gave Barghouti military salutes as they left.
Facing the defendant’s bench, the witnesses charged the court system with hypocrisy. One man, Nasser Aweis, issued a throaty condemnation: “I would only testify if it was Israel that was on trial at the International Criminal Court.”
The judges were unmoved.
Another convicted terrorist, Ismail Radaida, was asked if he was the man depicted in a video of his own confession and in a re-enactment of his murder of a couple driving on a main highway near Jerusalem. Radaida stared Sirota in the face and stated simply, “No, that’s not me.”
Flabbergasted, Sirota shot back, “Well then, who is it?”
In a trial that sought to slow the intifada by demoting one of its initiators to the status of “just another criminal,” some say the court has managed to bounce a renegade Barghouti back into legitimacy.
Barghouti is accused of masterminding terror attacks that killed dozens of Israelis. He has been charged with violating seven provisions of Israeli penal law: membership in a terrorist organization, activity in a terrorist organization, murder, complicity to murder, solicitation to murder, attempted murder and conspiracy to commit a felony.
Moreover, Israeli officials say Barghouti is the link between Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and the actual terrorists. A subtle hint, a word either spoken or left unsaid, is enough to indicate what Arafat wants, and Barghouti then passes instructions — and funding — to terrorists in the field, Israeli officials say.
Barghouti was captured a year ago during Operation Defensive Shield, Israel’s first massive invasion of the West Bank after a year and a half of escalating Palestinian terror attacks.
For his part, Barghouti maintains that he is solely a political leader, with no military role in the intifada.
At the very least, in the transcript of his confession to Shin Bet investigators — who included the agency’s director, Avi Dichter — Barghouti unabashedly divulged the intricacies of Palestinian backroom politics.
He revealed a Palestinian political world where maintaining legitimacy vis-a-vis the fundamentalist Islamic Jihad and Hamas is paramount. Barghouti, the West Bank secretary of Arafat’s Fatah movement, said he was obliged to take a leading role in the violent campaign against Israel in order to fend off the increasingly powerful fundamentalist groups and maintain his status in the Palestinian street.
The Foreign Ministry had hoped that the revelations relayed by Brig. Gen. Yossi Kupperwasser, head of research for Israel’s military intelligence, would at last cement the connection of Barghouti and Arafat and their responsibility for terrorism. Yet many here say the revelations fell flat.
The public had heard it all before: People knew that Arafat either directly or indirectly had ordered terror attacks; they knew that Barghouti was the man who translated Arafat’s signals into action; they knew that Barghouti might well be responsible for dozens of attacks.
What fresh information the Shin Bet interrogations revealed is the extent to which Barghouti seems to be enjoying his elevated status. He expressed optimism that time in prison would serve him well politically, allowing him to remain above the political fray while his enemies compete for Arafat’s support, sink in corruption scandals or fade into ignominy.
During his cross-examination, Barghouti put away his oft-repeated mantra that the trial is a sham and optimistically hailed the intifada as “the last struggle between Israelis and Palestinians before peace.”
“Barghouti is a Palestinian leader and has no connection to military operations,” said one witness, Khalum Abu Hmeid, with his hands still clamped on his ears in a signal of defiance of the court.
“One day, you are going to have to sit with Marwan Barghouti when he is prime minister of the Palestinian people. This court should be trying the Israeli government that massacres Palestinian children every day,” Hmeid said.
A senior Fatah source told JTA that the Israelis are — perhaps intentionally — “making Marwan into a Mandela, who may transform from prisoner to president,” a reference to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.
The mood in the Palestinian street seems to reflect this. Recent polls conducted by the Palestinian Center for Polling and Research found that Barghouti is the most popular Palestinian leader after Arafat, garnering the support of 21 percent of respondents.
According to the center, Barghouti is likely to gain on his mentor cum rival in next week’s polls.
Israeli officials, on the other hand, say the trial is important to show that no Palestinian leader involved in terrorism, no matter his rank, is beyond Israel’s reach — and that he will be treated severely but fairly if apprehended.
Meanwhile, images of a rumpled man sitting droopy-eyed and handcuffed in the courtroom beside towering prison guards have softened Barghouti’s image as a dangerous firebrand.
Inside the courtroom, Barghouti engaged in shouting matches with both the families of Israeli terror victims and the judges.
In almost every hearing so far, Zion Sweri, who lost two children in an attack Barghouti allegedly ordered, has shouted, “You are a terrorist, a murderer!”
As if by rote, Barghouti has responded, “No! I am a freedom fighter! I am a man of politics.”
The duet has exposed a microcosm of Israeli and Palestinian societies that often attends the trial. Beside Sweri, in a courtroom with space for about 80, sit the dedicated families of the victims, interspersed with members of the Government Press Office and Foreign Ministry officials.
Behind them often sit members of the Israeli left and Palestinian Americans loyal to Barghouti, “international observers” and other Barghouti loyalists.
Snickers, gasps of shock, even dismayed clucking, rise from the different sections of the gallery, depending on the testimony.
The courtroom is always under heavy guard, with as many as 20 security guards and police in attendance. All of this has taken place in a criminal case that, at least on official court books, is no different from any other murder case.
The judges’ panel, led by Sirota, is comprised not of Supreme Court judges but those who interpret the law day in and day out in the Tel Aviv Magistrates Court.
Even the court stenographer, the sole recorder of this bit of Israeli-Palestinian history — no recording devices are allowed in court — has appeared overwhelmed. Sirota often has had to slow the trial’s already plodding pace to permit the stenographer to catch up.
During each session Barghouti has asked his public defender, Inbal Rubinstein — who must sit through the trial despite Barghouti’s objections, the Supreme Court ruled — not to participate.
He then charges that the “Israeli occupation must be put on trial, not me.”
With his first anniversary in captivity coming next week, Barghouti has remained remarkably close to his script. He continues to espouse a two-state vision of Israeli and Palestinian states living side by side, and continues to maintain that he is a freedom fighter.
And he has never vowed that his arrest and trial will bring revenge upon Israeli civilians in the form of additional suicide bombings.