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Barghouti, Convicted of Murder, Presents Himself As Freedom Fighter

May 21, 2004
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It may have been the speech of Marwan Barghouti’s life.

“If I am to be in jail, I assure you that is not important,” the 44-year-old Palestinian legislator-turned-terrorist told Tel Aviv District Court on Thursday. “My day of freedom will come when the entire Palestinian people will be released from Israeli occupation.”

Barghouti had just been found guilty of orchestrating the murders of five people in shooting ambushes conducted by the Al-Aksa Brigade, the terrorist wing of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement. In Fatah, Barghouti is considered second in authority only to Arafat, the Palestinian Authority president.

The three-judge panel acquitted Barghouti on 33 other counts for lack of evidence, a move Israeli officials said demonstrated due process of law in a trial that drew intense international interest.

In keeping with his refusal to recognize Israel’s jurisdiction since he was captured by commandos in 2002, Barghouti did not respond to the verdict. Instead, he used the opportunity to make his latest — and perhaps last — political statement, arguing that he was only fighting for Palestinian rights and painting Palestinian shooting attacks as legitimate resistance to occupation.

“I tell the Israeli public to decide: Either we have a state of all the citizens or you give us a state of our own,” he said in near-fluent Hebrew to occasional applause from Israeli Arab parliamentarians and European supporters in the gallery. “Those same Israelis who oppose the occupation do so for the sake of Israel, not for the Palestinian people.”

In previous hearings, such remarks by Barghouti sparked cries of outrage from Israelis in the courtroom who were victims of terrorism. On Thursday, armed guards kept the protesters outside.

“I hope justice will be seen as well as done,” said Zion Sweri, who lost two children in a shooting by the Al-Aksa Brigade at the family car in 2001. “To my regret, there is no death penalty in the State of Israel. But I hope he rots in jail until the day he dies.”

Prosecutors asked that Barghouti get five life terms when he is sentenced June 6. While few doubt that will be the penalty, many are speculating that Barghouti actually won’t be behind bars for long.

Barghouti’s name has come up repeatedly in connection with contemplated prisoner swaps between Israel and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.

Clemency also could come if Israel needs to make diplomatic gains with the Palestinians or the Arab world. In 1997, Israel released Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin from prison to appease Jordan after a botched Mossad assassination attempt on a Hamas official in Amman.

“You will be out faster than Nelson Mandela,” Israeli Arab lawmaker Mohammed Barakeh shouted to Barghouti, referring to the anti-apartheid activist who survived long prison terms to become president of non-apartheid South Africa. “Those same Israelis who are sentencing you now will end up negotiating with you.”

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