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October 04, 2002

Barghouthi rejects Israel's right to try him

Marwan Barghouthi, the imprisoned West Bank chief of President Yasser Arafat's Fateh movement, raises his handcuffed hands as he enters a Tel Aviv courtroom. Barghouthi's trial reopened Thursday (Photo by Eitan Hess Ashkenazi/AP)

UPRISING LEADER Marwan Barghouthi was back in court Thursday on “terrorism” charges, rejecting in a turbulent hearing the Israeli occupation authorities' right to try him, and backed by a Jewish lawyer who compared him to Moses.

An Israeli source, meanwhile, confirmed that occupation army commandos have practised expelling Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, and the military is ready to spirit the Palestinian leader out of the country if the government gives the green light.

Meanwhile, an Israeli tank in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin fired at a vegetable market where Palestinians were breaking the curfew on Thursday, killing a 45-year-old vendor with machinegun fire, witnesses said.

In Tel Aviv, Barghouthi used his trial to attack Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, setting off fistfights among spectators as his team distributed a mock indictment of Israel.

Barghouthi, a key West Bank leader of Arafat's Fateh movement, is the highest-ranking Palestinian figure to be put on trial in Israel. His third court appearance was light on legal content but heavy with staging, tension and drama.

Israel accuses Barghouthi of orchestrating “terror” attacks that killed 26 Israelis. Barghouthi insists that he is a politician and is not connected with anti-occupation attacks.

In the legal proceedings, the judge gave the two sides six weeks to prepare arguments about the court's jurisdiction — which Barghouthi has challenged — and set the next court session for Nov. 21.

Defying howls of derision from relatives of Israelis killed in Palestinian attacks, Barghouthi made clenched fist and V-for-Victory signs as he entered the courtroom, shackled and handcuffed.

“Murderer,” one of the protesters shouted. “You killed my son,” shouted another.

“I am a freedom fighter,” Barghouthi retorted. “Peace will win.”

Outside, Barghouthi's aide distributed a document presented as a 54-count “indictment,” listing Israeli crimes against humanity in general and the Palestinians in particular, as Israelis and Palestinians scuffled.

Barghouthi's newest lawyer, Shamai Leibowitz, told the court that the prosecution of Barghouthi is a violation of Jewish law and morality. Leibowitz, an Israeli Orthodox Jew, is a grandson of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the famous Torah scholar who spoke out stridently against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

He submitted in evidence a page from the book of Exodus and told the judge that Barghouthi was acting like Moses, when the biblical figure killed an Egyptian because he was beating a Jewish slave. This was an act of resistance to the Egyptian occupation, Leibowitz said.

“Yes, but Moses didn't kill two other Egyptians,” said Judge Zvi Gurfinkel, alluding to Palestinian bombing and shooting attacks on Jewish “civilians.”

While Barghouthi is the defendant, the Israeli indictment charges that Arafat was aware of his activities, setting Arafat up as the real Israeli target.

Security sources confirmed for the first time Thursday that the Israeli military has practised expelling Arafat to a neighbouring country, a move the Israeli government believes would encourage emergence of what they call “a moderate leadership,” but critics warn would set off violence, hand power to Palestinian resistance fighters, cause chaos in the West Bank and Gaza and diplomatically isolate Israel.

The security sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said commando units practised a scenario of bursting into Arafat's office, abducting him, stuffing him into a helicopter and whisking him off to a remote part of an unnamed Arab country.

Arafat has pledged to resist deportation, even if he is killed in battle.

In a 10-day siege that ended Sunday under intense US pressure, Israeli bulldozers knocked down many of the buildings in the city block-sized compound, trapping Arafat inside part of his office. Though the security sources did not make the connection, the destruction of the other buildings would make it easier for Israeli commandos to find Arafat and spirit him away.

The sources said the commando unit had been placed on standby three times in recent months, including after a suicide bombing attack that killed 29 people celebrating the Jewish holiday of Passover in March, triggering a large-scale Israeli aggression on the West Bank.

Sharon is said to support expelling Arafat, but would be hesitant to move while the United States is trying to focus attention on Iraq. Israeli officials said that was the reason the US forced Israel to back away from Arafat's office on Sunday.

Also Thursday, a Palestinian vendor was shot and killed in the West Bank town of Jenin by Israeli troops enforcing a curfew, and in Gaza, soldiers tore down the house of a Palestinian activist who carried out a shooting attack on a Jewish settlement several months ago.

In the Jenin incident, Israeli military sources alleged an occupation army patrol came under fire from Palestinian freedom fighters and fired back towards the source of the shooting. The occupation army was investigating, they claimed.

Palestinian witnesses and medics said Ahmed Hassan Steiti, 45, was shot in the head when the outdoor market in Jenin came under machinegun fire from a tank, and died in a local hospital.

They said there was no fighting in the district when the vendor was shot and that people had gone to the market in the morning assuming the curfew would be eased during the day. An army spokesman said the curfew remained in place.

Israel has lifted curfews during daytime hours or relaxed its enforcement of them in some of the six West Bank cities it has reoccupied since June in response to Palestinian suicide bombings.

Israel says the curfews help stop suicide bombers. Palestinians complain of collective punishment because hundreds of thousands of people have been confined to their homes for long periods, unable to work or get essential supplies.

Curfew violations, born of desperation or defiance, have been frequent. Two Palestinian boys and a Palestinian municipal official were killed in Jenin in June when tanks fired towards a crowd on a downtown street during curfew.

An army spokesman said troops rounded up 35 more suspected Palestinian resistance fighters in overnight raids across the West Bank.

In Washington meanwhile, the US administration tried to calm Arab tempers after a congressional funding bill signed into law by US President George W. Bush this week demanded that the US embassy in Tel Aviv be transferred to the occupied Palestinian city of Jerusalem.

The move would implicitly recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, whose 1967 annexation of the Arab eastern sector of the disputed city holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians has never been acknowledged by the international community.

Most states have their embassies in Tel Aviv to avoid adding weight to Israel's declaration of Jerusalem as its undivided capital, which clashes directly with the Palestinians' aspirations to have the capital of their future state in the eastern part.

The move caused a storm of protest across the region, while Israel itself has kept quiet on the issue.

Worried that the furore could further hamper efforts to build an anti-Iraqi coalition in the region, the State Department insisted US policy on Jerusalem was unchanged and Washington still believed its status should be settled between Israel and the Palestinians.

“Our policy on Jerusalem has not changed,” department spokesman Philip Reeker said. “I can't make it any plainer than that.”

But Arafat called on Christians to join Muslims in rejecting Congress's demand.

“No one can touch Jerusalem,” he said in Ramallah.

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