Palestinian firebrand awaits his calling

Imprisoned by Israel, Barghouti could go on trial or succeed Arafat

July 30, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - This used to be Marwan Barghouti's town. He was the leader-in-waiting of a new generation of Palestinians, the fiery orator who seemed to be at every clash with Israeli soldiers on the edge of the city, the man who darted between hiding places and bragged that the Israelis were trying to kill him.

Now, the person once hailed as a man of the future for the Palestinians, the common man's alternative to leaders steeped in cronyism, sits in an Israeli jail. He is about to go on trial on charges that he helped orchestrate the Palestinian uprising and used his political sway to direct and financially support a campaign of violence.

The only place Palestinians now see Barghouti is on faded "Free Marwan" posters asking for help in paying his legal bills. And the Israeli army controls the streets of Ramallah.

Hearings at which the formal charges will be filed have been postponed repeatedly and are now tentatively scheduled to begin in a couple of weeks.

There is a chance Barghouti will never stand trial, that Israel might instead deport him to Lebanon in exchange for Israelis held prisoner by Hezbollah guerrillas.

And there is a chance, some Israeli officials say, that if Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were to suddenly depart the scene, the government would release Barghouti in hopes that he could institute democratic reforms that most Palestinians long for and that Israel says are the only route to a lasting peace.

But most Israeli officials believe Barghouti is not the man they once thought he was. Far from being a political reformer, they say, he is an unabashed militant, the financier of suicide bombers and gunmen who have killed dozens of Israeli civilians.

Soldiers arrested Barghouti at a hide-out in April, and he was regarded as a prize catch of Operation Defensive Shield, Israel's invasion of the West Bank.

If the case goes forward, Barghouti, 43, who was elected to the Palestinian legislature in 1995, would become the most prominent Palestinian to be tried by Israel in nearly a decade. His court appearance would mean far more than one man's guilt or innocence, for the very nature of this deadly conflict would be on trial.

Israel's attorney general wants to show how the shootings and suicide bombings are supported logistically and financially, tracing that support to the top of the Palestinian Authority. Officials decided last month that the trial would take place in open criminal court, instead of before a secret military tribunal.

"We want this to be public, to demonstrate the structure of terror to the world," said Uri Steinberg, a spokesman for Israel's Justice Ministry.

Barghouti's defense team says the real subjects of a trial should be the Israeli army's checkpoints, closures and curfews.

"We will use this court as a political court to accuse Israel of illegal occupation," said Barghouti's wife, Fawda, a lawyer and director of his legal team.

The charges are illegal, she said, and a guilty verdict a "foregone conclusion. Israel has no right to take an elected politician in front of its courts."

She said her husband does not plan on putting on a defense but instead will try to turn the trial into political theater.

Ali Jarbawi, a Palestinian political science professor at Birzeit University, near Ramallah, said Israel is unlikely to allow Barghouti and his lawyers to present the case they want. And if they are allowed to present it, few will listen, he said.

"What happened in Gaza did not sufficiently move the world," he said, referring to last week's attack in which an Israeli bomb killed 14 civilians along with the Hamas militant who was the target. "I don't think a political trial of Marwan will mean too much. The world is getting used to a protracted conflict in which a lot of bad things happen."

Jarbawi, one of Barghouti's former teachers at the university, said the brash politician could easily be forgotten.

"He is not the Nelson Mandela of Palestine," the professor cautioned. "He might be in 20 years, but right now he's not. I think he has a bright political future."

Imprisoned by Israel

This month, Barghouti's wife was allowed to visit her husband for the first time in the jail in Jerusalem's Russian Compound. He had spent 95 days confined to a 6-by-6-foot cell with no window and a hole in the floor for a toilet. For 21 days, she said, interrogators handcuffed him to a chair and deprived him of sleep.

The two talked for 90 minutes, about their four children, work and the trial. He had a scraggly new beard. His hair was long, and he had lost weight. His swagger had diminished.

"I tried to show him that I was strong," Fawda Barghouti said. "I didn't want to show him any sign of weakness. But when I got outside, I started crying. I couldn't hide it anymore. I felt for the first time how much Israel is intent on humiliating the Palestinian people."

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