An Israeli Arab lawmaker has become the first member of Knesset to go on trial for statements he has made.
The case is likely to generate widespread attention because the defendant, Azmi Beshara, says he is being discriminated against because he is Arab and because of his political views.
A radical legislator opposed to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state, Beshara is expected to use the trial to try to paint himself as a martyr struggling against allegedly oppressive or racist Israeli authorities.
The charges against Beshara relate to two speeches he made last year, one of them in Syria, praising Hezbollah’s guerrilla warfare against Israel, encouraging Palestinians to adopt similar tactics to fight what he described as Israeli occupation of Arab land and calling on the Arab world to unite against Israel.
At the start of the trial Wednesday, Beshara denied any wrongdoing, saying the charges were politically motivated.
“I think that those who planned this trial already regret what they did because they can’t judge me on my political position without me arguing my political position, not without the trial becoming a platform for debate on whether opposition to the occupation is legitimate or not,” he said.
The trial has drawn international attention, and representatives from foreign and local human rights groups were present in the packed courtroom.
One foreign human rights activist told Channel Two she was “saddened to see that Israel was turning away from democracy.”
Some 250 supporters of the legislators demonstrated outside the courthouse, waving Palestinian flags and singing nationalist songs. There were minor scuffles with police.
The charges against Beshara relate to two speeches he gave in the past few years.
In June, during a speech in Syria, Beshara called for the Arab world to unite against the “warmongering” government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The speech was made in front of sworn enemies of the Jewish state such as Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and terrorist Ahmed Jibril.
The other speech was made in the Israeli city of Umm el-Fahm to commemorate the 33rd anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War.
If convicted, Beshara could face a maximum of three years in prison.
The next hearing is scheduled for the beginning of April.
Another trial against Beshara also is under way. That case is over visits to Syria, an enemy state, that Beshara arranged for Israeli Arabs, without the approval of Israeli authorities.
Beshara maintains his efforts were humanitarian because they aimed to reunite families.
Last November, Israeli legislators voted overwhelmingly to lift Beshara’s parliamentary immunity so he could stand trial.
Beshara is known for making controversial statements. He repeatedly has called to transform Israel from a Jewish state into a “state of all its citizens” — a call now adopted by virtually all Israeli Arab political parties.
Beshara has also demanded that Israel drop Hatikvah as its national anthem and remove Jewish images, such as the Star of David, from the Israeli flag and other state symbols.
A Christian born in Nazareth, Beshara has not shied away from the political limelight in his attempts to secure more rights for the Israeli Arab community.
Until his 11th-hour withdrawal from the 1999 race for prime minister, Beshara was the first Israeli Arab to seek the post.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.