Uprising on trial

August 18, 2002

IN A FEW WEEKS, the murder trial of a popular Palestinian politician will begin in a Tel Aviv courtroom. But this won't be an ordinary trial. It won't even be a trial about one man, although only Marwan Barghouti will be in the dock.

Accusing him of being an "arch terrorist," Israel has indicted Mr. Barghouti on charges of attempted murder, murder, conspiracy and, most telling, membership in a terrorist organization. The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon intends to prove that the charismatic and articulate Mr. Barghouti, an outspoken leader of the current Palestinian uprising, directed numerous terrorist operations that resulted in the deaths of dozens of Israelis.

And in doing so, the government expects to expose the corrupt, terror-driven mantle of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's regime.

It is an ambitious undertaking, but one that the government of Mr. Sharon must be well prepared to prove. A success of this endeavor would underscore the insistence of Mr. Sharon and others that no one under Mr. Arafat's authority can be trusted to serve as an honest broker in negotiations to end the violence of the past 22 months.

But Israel's strategy could elevate Mr. Barghouti, who proffers himself as a man of peace, to hero status as the defender of the Palestinian uprising and the international spokesman of the Palestinians' plight.

The 42-year-old lawmaker has his own plan for the proceedings. He and his lawyers want to put the Israeli occupation on trial. Defiantly waving his steel-cuffed hands in the air, Mr. Barghouti pledged to level his own charges against the Israeli government.

One of his lawyers offered this enticing distraction: The team has invited former South African President Nelson Mandela to observe the proceedings. A clever move. Mr. Mandela's presence in the courtroom would telegraph the Palestinians' claims that they are freedom fighters, battling an illegal and unjust occupation. Israel would be hard-pressed to deny Mr. Mandela a visa to attend. The very nature of this trial, in a civilian court, is to let the world witness the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority.

But Mr. Barghouti's often-fiery tongue and sharp rhetoric may get him in trouble. He may be silenced by the court if he or his lawyers fail to incorporate his grievances within the confines of a legitimate defense.

The Israeli government cannot be underestimated, either. Prosecutors must certainly have strong evidence to pursue a case in a civil trial that could ultimately end up before the country's respected and independent Supreme Court.

During the military takeover of the West Bank this spring, Israel's army reportedly seized 500,000 documents from Palestinian offices. A few damning letters and memos have already been published.

The documents, if they are indeed legitimate, clearly link Mr. Arafat and Mr. Barghouti with actions of the Al Aqsa Brigades, a military wing associated with Mr. Arafat's Fatah faction responsible for the second-highest number of suicide bombings since the uprising began in fall of 2000.

Marwan Barghouti, once believed to be a successor to Mr. Arafat, will have his day in court. The trial may enhance his reputation as a national hero or confine him to a long prison term as an "arch terrorist" and agent of a corrupt regime.

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