It did not take long for the trial of Palestinian militia leader Marwan Barghouti to create fireworks.
“I am a freedom fighter,” Barghouti said Thursday as his trial began in a Tel Aviv courtroom.
“You are a murderer,” shouted the father of an Israeli teen-ager killed in a Palestinian suicide bombing in June. “You are a terrorist.”
Barghouti described himself as a fighter for peace.
When the presiding judge noted that “fighters for peace don’t plant bombs,” Barghouti sidestepped the issue.
“I don’t want to get into that,” he said.
In the hallway, meanwhile, shouting matches and scuffles broke out between Jewish and Arab spectators.
With the start of the Barghouti proceedings, the courtroom is likely to become the latest arena in the battle for public opinion in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israeli officials realize Barghouti, who refuses to recognize Israel’s right to try him, will try to use the proceedings to state his case as a Palestinian political leader, and to put Israel itself on trial.
Aware of the wide international interest in the trial, Israel’s Foreign Ministry is investing time and personnel to make sure its side of the story is heard.
Thursday’s hearing to read out the indictment was a technical follow-up to a court session last month, when the charges against Barghouti were first presented.
Though brief, the session was charged.
Barghouti is charged with orchestrating terror attacks carried out by the Fatah movement’s Tanzim and Al-Aksa Brigade militias, killing scores of Israelis. As anticipated, he refused legal representation to underscore his contention that Israel has no right to try him.
“I don’t recognize this court. This is a court of the occupation,” Barghouti said. “I am a Palestinian parliamentarian. I was elected by the Palestinian people. I am a political figure.”
Barghouti supporters, opponents and members of the media crowded the courtroom for the short session in which the indictment was read.
Among the spectators were Barghouti’s three children, whom he had not seen since his capture by Israeli troops during a massive anti-terror operation the army conducted in the West Bank last spring.
Also in the courtroom were relatives of Israelis killed or wounded in terrorist attacks.
An Israeli whose son and daughter-in-law were killed in a Palestinian ambush interrupted Barghouti’s opening statement, shouting, “Freedom fighters fight soldiers, not women and children.”
Though he has refused counsel, Barghouti’s lawyer, Jawad Boulos, is expected to represent him at a hearing in a month, when he will seek to raise the issue of whether Israel has the right to try him.
Israel says the evidence against Barghouti is based on documents seized during the anti-terror operation and from testimony from Barghouti subordinates who have been arrested.
Israeli officials hope the trial will prove that members of the Palestinian leadership have been directly involved in terrorism against Israel.
Israel has maintained it also has evidence proving that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat oversaw terrorist operations.
According to P.A. documents the Israeli army seized during the anti-terror operation, Barghouti would receive funding requests from terrorists in the field and pass them along to Arafat with a personal recommendation.
Arafat often adjusted the amounts, then sent them back to Barghouti for payment, according to accounts of the seized documents in Israeli newspapers.
Gideon Meir, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the trial will provide an “opportunity to tell Israel’s story.”
“The Palestinians are trying to turn this trial into a political trial,” Meir told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. “We need to tell the story of the Israeli population and what it has been through in the last two years.”