JERUSALEM - Branding him an "arch murderer," Israel will formally charge popular Palestinian militia leader Marwan Barghouti today with killing scores of Israelis.
Barghouti, 43, is the West Bank head of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement and one of the most visible leaders of the Palestinian uprising. His lawyers claim he is only a senior political leader, but Israel accuses him of masterminding many acts of violence by Palestinian militants during the past two years.
By bringing criminal proceedings against Barghouti, Israel evidently hopes to discredit the highest levels of the Palestinian leadership. But the outspoken leader is immensely popular among Palestinians, particularly with Palestinian youth. Polls rank him second in popularity only to Arafat, and Israel is taking a risk that the trial could further boost Barghouti's popularity.
"Barghouti led, administered, financed and activated many terrorist actions against Israeli targets via leading terrorists," said Israel's Justice Ministry in a statement yesterday. "A clear picture emerges of an arch murderer who had an active hand in dozens of terrorist actions."
Jawad Boulos, Barghouti's lawyer, said Barghouti planned to plead not guilty.
"He is a political leader. He is a member of the Palestinian legislative council. He had nothing to do directly with actions that took place inside Israel," said Boulos.
Barghouti's supporters say the public proceedings will provide Barghouti an arena to highlight the plight of the Palestinian people.
"He symbolizes the whole situation of the Palestinian people who have suffered under Israeli occupation," said Boulos.
The trial, scheduled to begin in a few weeks, comes as Israelis step up efforts to discourage Palestinian attacks by going after the assailants' families.
Yesterday, Israeli soldiers demolished the homes of two Palestinian terror suspects in the West Bank, and the military sought the expulsion from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip of relatives of three suicide bombers.
Israel's Supreme Court temporarily blocked the expulsion yesterday after an appeal and gave the Israeli government 15 days to convince the court of the merits of expelling them.
Israel says it has no choice but to use extraordinary tactics because suicide bombings and shooting attacks have surged in recent months. More than 1,400 Palestinians and 550 Israelis have been killed since peace talks broke down in Sept. 2000. Suicide bombers have killed about 250 Israelis.
Human rights activists charge that house demolitions and expulsions violate international law and collectively punish the Palestinian people.
"This is a crime about which we cannot keep silent," Arafat told reporters at his Ramallah headquarters.
Today, the spotlight will be on Barghouti as he makes his first public appearance - in a Tel Aviv district court - since his April 15 arrest in Ramallah during an Israeli military sweep of the West Bank.
The charges against him include murder, attempted murder and active participation in terrorist groups.
Israel also accuses Barghouti of being the leader of Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a Fatah-linked militant group behind several suicide bombings and shooting ambushes in recent months.
Boulos said Israel does not have the jurisdiction to try Barghouti.
Israeli officials have claimed Barghouti confessed to masterminding attacks, but Boulos denied the allegations, adding that his client was under a lot of pressure while in Israeli custody.