Mideast conflict to be fought in court

Barghouti trial shaping up as a political duel


JERUSALEM - Marwan Barghouti, the most prominent Palestinian leader to be brought before a civilian Israeli court, made clear at his indictment on terrorism charges yesterday that he intends to turn his public trial into a political duel with Israel.

Waving his handcuffed hands in his first appearance since his capture on April 15, Barghouti shouted in Hebrew (a language he learned during previous incarcerations in Israeli prisons): "I have charges against the Israeli government."

As television cameras and radio microphones recorded the proceedings, he continued: "I have a charge sheet with 50 clauses against Israel for the bloodshed of both people."

Barghouti was twice pulled out of the Tel Aviv courtroom by guards in attempts to stop his speeches before the session finally ended with the announcement that the next hearing would be Sept. 5.

But Arab members of the Israeli parliament who were in the courtroom picked up his theme. "This will be a trial of the Israeli occupation and oppression," said one of them, Ahmed Tibi.

The Israeli prosecutor made equally clear that Israel intends to use the trial to substantiate its claim that the entire Palestinian leadership of Yasser Arafat, in which Barghouti played a prominent role, is nothing more than a band of terrorists and murderers.

Dvora Chen, the prosecutor, said her evidence includes the testimony of Barghouti's supposed associates who are also in Israeli custody; documents seized by the Israeli army during its large-scale raids into the West Bank last spring - including some intended to establish Arafat's personal role in approving and financing terror strikes; and statements made by Barghouti himself during his interrogation.

"The charges are murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to murder and activities in a terrorist organization," Chen said.

Israel's basic case is that Barghouti, as the West Bank leader of Fatah, Arafat's core political movement, was responsible for terror attacks carried out by Fatah's secretive and deadly Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. The charge sheet, which she did not read aloud in court, specifically cites 37 attacks in which 26 people were killed and scores wounded.

"The accused, a Ramallah resident, heads the West Bank terror organization," the indictment declared. "The accused was subordinate to Yasser Arafat, who heads the terrorist organization."

What the indictment did not note was that Barghouti, 42, is also the second-most popular figure among the Palestinians, after Arafat, and a man often cited as a potential successor to Arafat. Charismatic and canny, he is of a generation of Palestinian leaders who came to prominence in the uprisings of the late 1980s and so are perceived as a homegrown and uncorrupted alternative to the expatriates who arrived with Arafat after the Oslo agreements of 1993.

Barghouti was first arrested and deported by the Israelis at the age of 16, but he returned to become president of the student body at Birzeit University, a hotbed of Palestinian nationalism in the West Bank. That led to another deportation, from which he returned in 1993 to be elected to the new Palestinian Legislative Council set up under the Oslo agreements. In the council, he was an enthusiastic advocate of peace with Israel - and an occasional critic of Arafat and his lieutenants.

The latest chapter in Barghouti's career came with the most recent uprising, during which he became increasingly militant. The Israelis argue that Barghouti led Fatah to adopt ever more violent tactics and finally to send suicide bombers into Israel - a tactic until then limited to Islamic militants. Barghouti has denied operational control over the suicide bombings, though he has not condemned them.

For the Israeli government, therefore, the public trial of Barghouti is above all an attempt to demonstrate that suicide bombings and other terror tactics are not the work of fanatics on the fringe, but a policy of the Palestinian leadership. The risk for Israel, which many Israeli commentators have pointed out, is that it is putting on trial a leader who might have become - and might yet become - a promising partner in peace negotiations.

In his shouted comments in the courtroom - in Hebrew, English and Arabic - Barghouti played heavily on that notion.

"Marwan Barghouti is fighting for peace," he declared. "Peace will be achieved by the end of the occupation. No peace, no security, with the occupation. The Israeli people are paying a heavy price for your government's actions. I believe the best solution for the two peoples is two states."

Barghouti's lawyers said they would argue that Israel had no right to try him, since he was seized on Palestinian territory and is a member of the Legislative Council. At the same time, Khader Shkirat, a defense team member, said the defense would use the trial to show "the entire Palestinian suffering."

In another development today, Palestinians said Israeli forces killed the local leader of Hamas, the militant Islamic organization, in Jenin. The man, Nasr Jarrar, was said to have lost both legs and an arm while preparing a bomb a year ago.

Palestinians said Israeli troops surrounded the house where Jarrar was staying and used loudspeakers to order people out. Tanks then shelled the house, killing Jarrar.

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