Jonathan Steele in Tel Aviv
Thursday August 15, 2002
In a major embarrassment to Israel, Nelson Mandela has agreed to observe the trial of a Palestinian leader formally indicted yesterday on charges of murder and terrorism. A lawyer for Marwan Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian legislative council and secretary general of the Fatah movement in the West Bank, revealed he had been in South Africa last week to invite the former president to the trial.
"He said he was enthusiastic about coming," Khader Shkirat said. He quoted South Africa's most famous political prisoner as saying: "What is happening to Barghouti is exactly the same as what happened to me. The government tried to de-legitimise the African National Congress and its armed struggle by putting me on trial."
Mr Barghouti was arrested in April and is the first senior Palestinian to be put in the dock in the two years of the uprising against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
The trial is bound to raise emotions on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide and is seen as a high-risk gamble by Israel to try to paint Mr Barghouti and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, as directly linked to the suicide bombings and other attacks on Israeli civilians.
Palestinians see Mr Barghouti as a national hero, second only to Mr Arafat in popularity, and the trial is expected to give him even more support. His lawyers hope to use the trial and the linguistic fluency and charisma of their client to put the Israeli occupation in the dock.
Raising his handcuffed arms in his first public court appearance yesterday, at the district court in Tel Aviv, Mr Barghouti told Israeli reporters in Hebrew: "The intifada will win." In English, he went on: "I am a peaceful man. I was trying to do everything for peace between the two peoples. I believe the best solution is two states for two peoples."
The indictment, read in part yesterday, branded him an "arch-terrorist whose hands are bloodied by dozens of terror actions".
September 5, 2002
Who doesn't remember the picture: a Jew is put on trial in Moscow as a Zionist spy. Family members and friends come to observe the trial but are turned away. No place left, they are told, all the seats have already been taken. And indeed, KGB agents have filled the hall early, and with the entrance of the accused start to shout: "Traitor!" "Spy!" "Kill him!"
The day before yesterday I witnessed something frighteningly similar in Tel-Aviv.
The prosecution's request to keep Marwan Barghouti in prison till the end of his trial was due to be heard in the District Court. Barghouti, a prominent political personality, has been known for years as the leader of Arafat's Fatah movement on the West Bank. After Oslo, he participated in many peace demonstrations. He was kidnapped by the IDF and put on trial as a terrorist. Gush Shalom activists and others decided to attend and observe the proceedings.
I arrived two hours early, but was not allowed into the courtroom, in spite of my press card. All the members of the public had been evicted, because inside a briefing of security personnel was taken place. I had a peek at dozens of security people and others inside the room. They obviously were planning what was about to happen.
In the meantime, a crowd had assembled in front of the door. The security people ordered everyone to descend one floor and erected a barrier at the foot of the steps. Behind it, security people and officials of the Prime Minister's office took up positions. They had lists in their hands. "Only people who appear on the lists will be allowed in!" they announced.
Who did enter? A number of journalists and TV teams, according to a list prepared by the Government Press Office (a branch of the Prime Minister's office). A few diplomats and a Knesset member. Apart from those, only people appearing on the list provided by the "Organization of Terror Victims".
This is an innocent name for a well-known group: a radical right-wing body, well organized and trained, that specializes in extremely vociferous Arab-bashing demonstrations. Often, the "victims" appear side by side with the rowdies of Kach - an outlawed Jewish terrorist group. The "victim's organization" represents, of course, only a tiny part of the tens of thousands of families hurt by the violence, who belong to all segments of society. Suicide bombers do not differentiate between leftists and rightists, Jewish and Arab citizens.
Apart from the members of this organization, no one - not one single person!!! - was allowed into the courtroom. I am a journalist. For some fifty years I have held a press card issued by the Government Press Office. I am also a former Knesset member. No matter, for two and a half hours I stood in front of the barrier, crowed in on all sides, unable to move, hardly breathing in the stifling heat, while the members of the "Victim's Organization" passed by me, holding folded posters and large photos. Around me there were lawyers, peace activists, foreign journalists and ordinary spectators.
In Israel and around the word people saw what happened in the courtroom: When Barghouti was brought in, the public inside started a riot, waving placards and pictures and shouting "Murderer!""Terrorist!" "Kill him!" It looked like the circus in ancient Rome or a lynch mob. People seeing this on TV had no way of knowing that this was a show planned and organized well in advance by the Sharon government.
The aim was clear. One of the participants, a man called Swiri, confessed to it candidly when interviewed on TV: "I wanted the world to see the victims of this murderer, Barghouti!" Meaning: the participants in the riot had not come to see and listen. They have convicted the accused even before the start of the trial. The principle, that every person is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a proper trial, is not recognized by them. It certainly does not apply to Palestinians.
The very decision to stuff the hall with'terror victims", to the exclusion of everybody else, amounts to a conviction in advance. The victims versus the perpetrator. This means that the whole'trial" is nothing but a propaganda exhibition, a show-trial of the sort that used to be associated with Fascist and Communist regimes.
The pre-planned riot took place in a court. The Court Guard, which includes many Security Service agents, took part in the organization of the show, which was orchestrated by the Prime Minister's office. It is hard to believe that all this happened without the knowledge - and, indeed, the cooperation - of the court.
This puts the whole justice system, once the pride of Israel, to shame. But probably this debasement was inevitable. After the decisions of the Supreme Court approving torture ("moderate physical pressure"), exiling and demolishing the homes of relatives of suicide bombers, holding kidnapped people as "bargaining chips" (Sheikh Obeid and Dirani), this is another inevitable stage. It adds to the price of the occupation and the intifada: in this field, too, we are descending into the Third World.
Israeli TV channels gave much prominence to the riot in the courtroom, without reporting how it was planned and orchestrated. And no wonder: what is happening now to the courts has already happened to TV. Since Ariel Sharon recently took direct control over the electronic media, everybody can see the result with his or her own eyes. Like the late Stalin, Sharon now appears on TV almost every day, speaking at length to the nation. Each such'event" is meticulously planned and directed by his spin doctors. He appears among soldiers, against a background of tanks, in the company of children, at meetings of bereaved parents, at memorial ceremonies. Never with the jobless in Yerucham or the hungry families in Dimona, who pay the price of the intifada.
Every day one minister is invited, in his turn, to a long TV interview, explaining the government's and his own immense achievements. For the sake of balance, a right-wing politician is often confronted with an extreme-right-wing colleague. Sometimes, but on fewer and fewer occasions, a "leftist" is called in for alibi purposes, and is allowed to utter a few sentences about peace, before he is interrupted by angry shouts. What a show!
This is how the "only democracy in the Middle East" looks now. Once this was called a "people's democracy".