Making Marwan Barghouti a terrorist

Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti’s op-ed posted Sunday in the New York Times titled ‘Why We Are on Hunger Strike in Israel’s Prisons’ was the inauguration of a massive hunger strike by more than a thousand Palestinian detainees against their treatment by Israel. The article appeared only on the international edition, but still, it was something.

The publication brought the predictable fury of Israeli leaders. The fact that the article noted Barghouti as a “Palestinian leader and parliamentarian” was outrageous for them. Centrist-liberal Member of Knesset Yair Lapid regarded the ‘omission’ of Barghouti’s ‘terrorist record’ as amounting to “intentional deception”; Prime Minister Netanyahu commented in a very puzzling way, saying that referring to Barghouti solely as a politician, as The New York Times did, was akin to calling Syrian President Bashar Assad “a pediatrician” (actually, Dr. Assad was specializing in Opthalmology). What did Netanyahu really mean? Virtually any Israeli understands this: that Marwan Barghouti needs to be mentioned as a murderer, and perhaps most importantly, a terrorist.

Picking up the script, New York Times public editor Liz Spayd tweeted: “How much should you know about Marwan Barghouti? More than you were told”.

Elaborating in her own piece titled “An Op-Ed Author Omits His Crimes, and The Times Does Too,” Spayd wrote:

“I see no reason to skimp on this, while failing to do so risks the credibility of the author and the Op-Ed pages”…”Do the authors of the pieces have any conflicts of interest that could challenge their credibility? Are they who they say they are, and can editors vouch for their fidelity?”.

Thus after external and internal pressure, the Times published an Editor’s note at the bottom of Barghouti’s op-ed the day after, saying:

“This article explained the writer’s prison sentence but neglected to provide sufficient context by stating the offenses of which he was convicted. They were five counts of murder and membership in a terrorist organization. Mr. Barghouti declined to offer a defense at his trial and refused to recognize the Israeli court’s jurisdiction and legitimacy.”

It could be interesting to reflect Liz Spayd’s comments against, for example, her paper’s eulogy of Nelson Mandela in 2013. In that article, titled “Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s Liberator as Prisoner and President, Dies at 95” , the ‘uncomfortable’ facts are reduced to a near footnote deep down in the massive article, which treats him as a liberation fighter:

Mr. Mandela’s exploits in the “armed struggle” have been somewhat mythologized. During his months as a cloak-and-dagger outlaw, the press christened him “the Black Pimpernel.” But while he trained for guerrilla fighting and sought weapons for Spear of the Nation, he saw no combat. The A.N.C.’s armed activities were mostly confined to planting land mines, blowing up electrical stations and committing occasional acts of terrorism against civilians.” 

Perhaps by Spayd’s standards, an op-Ed by Mandela should also have included the fact that he was on USA’s terror watch list…until 2008.

The Israeli fury also brought Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emanuel Nachson to pack seven lies in one statement by saying:

“The Palestinian prisoners are not political prisoners. They are convicted terrorists and murderers. They were brought to justice and are treated properly under international law”

This was followed by an elaborate piece of tarnishing on the official Foreign Ministry page, titled “On Marwan Barghouti’s murder record, political maneuvering and exploitation”.

But let’s put the hysteria aside – what do we actually know about Barghouti’s capture, trial and conviction?

On August 4th 2001, Barghouti went underground, following an Israeli missile attack against two vehicles leaving Fatah headquarters. He was narrowly missed. The Israeli Government stated that another person was the target even though Deputy Minister for Internal Security Gideon Erza said Barghouti “amply deserves to die”. 

“We tried to eliminate him twice, we wasted his people right and left.”

So said head of Shin Bet (Israeli security services) Avi Dichter. 

A warrant for Barghouti’s arrest was issued in September 2001, and after intense chase, he was caught by the Israeli military in Ramallah on April 15, 2002. The decision was made not to kill him. “I don’t want him liquidated – just arrest him,” said Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer to Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz. Haaretz noted that

“in his [Ben Eliezer’s] view, the most-wanted individual would be the next leader of the Palestinians, after the Yasser Arafat era”.

A captain from the undercover Israeli Duvdevan unit was quoted saying:

“We were told something we rarely heard – namely that the order to capture him was a directive of the prime minister, Ariel Sharon.”

But Chief of Staff Mofaz despised Barghouti, and had no patience for him. He said: 

“if he tries to resist and fight, we will shoot him. But I’m willing to bet he will give up without a fight. He has no guts.”

Shortly after Barghouti’s arrest, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Israel’s most decorated soldier, decried the capture for elevating Barghouti:

“Have you lost your mind? What’s the story with Barghouti? If it’s part of your struggle against terrorism, it’s meaningless. But if it’s part of a grand plan to make him a future national leader of the Palestinians, then it’s a brilliant scheme, because what’s really missing in his résumé is direct affiliation with terrorism. He will fight for the leadership from inside prison, not having to prove a thing. The myth will grow constantly by itself.”

But how was this ‘terrorist record’ to be construed?

Israel stacked up 37 charges related to the deaths of dozens of civilians during the 2nd Intifada. Out of these, 33 were rejected by the court, as they were conducted by Al Aqsa Martyrs and showed no direct connection to Barghouti. The remaining cases included three attacks, which killed four Israelis and a Greek monk.

“Think about it,” said Marwan Dalal, a lawyer with the Adalah Legal Centre for Minority Rights inside Israel. “The attorney-general approves indicting him with 37 charges related to attacks that led to the deaths of dozens of people. The prosecution then claims it has proof in documents confiscated by the army from the Palestinian Authority that Barghouti was personally responsible for those killings. Barghouti remains silent. And the verdict: the court throws out 33 of the charges for lack of evidence. It leaves a lot of questions about the judgement of the attorney-general and the credibility of the so-called ‘proof’ found by the army.”

Indeed, the whole trial contained a massive amount of worrying signs indicating a political show-trial, including numerous violations of international law, which should cast serious doubt as to the credibility of it all.

To begin with, after being captured, Barghouti was held incommunicado for a month. Barghouti described to his lawyers the conditions of his interrogation: physical pressures in the form of sleep deprivation and uninterrupted interrogations, and recourse to what is known as the shabeh method, consisting in attaching the person interrogated to a chair and forcing them to sit for several hours in a painful position. In this case, nails protruding from the back of the chair aggravated the discomfort by preventing him from leaning back. Barghouti also said that the interrogators made death threats against him and his son. While he was incommunicado, the Shin Bet ‘leaked’ to the press that Barghouti had confessed to involvement in various terrorist attacks and had even implicated the President of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat. Barghouti denied those claims as soon as he was given the opportunity to do so at his public trial.

The State Attorney decided to have the trial conducted in the Tel Aviv District Court, although Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that

“Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportation of protected persons from the occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive”. 

The court rejected the complaint against this (as well as the initial infringement upon the Palestinian Authority in the initial capturing), in stating that the Geneva Convention “does not prohibit individual transfers of prisoners but mass-scale deportations of populations”. But this is just Israeli ‘legal creativity’. As the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) report on the case notes, the relevant article wording “is in no way ambiguous and requires no interpretation”. It adds that

“If the Tel Aviv District Court had applied this rule” [that is, actually applied international law], “it would have necessarily had to conclude that Mr. Barghouti’s transfer from Ramallah to Jerusalem constituted a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. It should be noted that, pursuant to Articles 146 and 147 of the Convention, such infraction should be subject to penal sanctions.”

At the very first appearance in court (5th September 2002), Judge Sarah Sirota already unfurled her bias in no uncertain ways: After Barghouti had described himself as a “fighter for peace for both peoples”, she interrupted him and said:

“One who fights for peace doesn’t turn people into bombs and kill children”.

Thus Barghouti was presumed guilty from the very first instance. As the Inter-Parliamentary Union report noted,

“Mr. Barghouti probably should have been entitled to ask his judge to withdraw from the case because of this failure of her duty to show impartiality.”

While the trial was going on, some newspapers announced that the Israeli Government was tempted to negotiate the release of Barghouti under a prisoner exchange scheme. A letter by the Israeli Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, who had written to the Prime Minister to oppose this, declared Barghouti was a “first-rate architect of terrorism”. The IPU report comments:

“Once again, this statement prejudged the outcome of a trial that was still ongoing, and demonstrated contempt for the presumption of innocence, which is surprising coming from a person in his position.”

Ninety-six witnesses were called in by the prosecution. Two-thirds of them (63) were investigators or individuals associated with the investigation into Barghouti but unable to give a personal testimony regarding his involvement.

Another 12 of the witnesses were victims or witnesses of bomb attacks, with no information regarding the personal involvement of the accused. Thus only 21 of the prosecution witnesses were actually in a position to testify directly regarding Barghouti’s role in these attacks. But none of these 21 individuals in fact accused him. About 12 of them explicitly told the court that he was not involved. Most of them quite simply refused to answer the questions of the court, generally on the ground that it had no jurisdiction to judge Barghouti.

Thus the court had to fall back on statements collected by the investigators, although several witnesses told the court that these statements had been obtained under duress. According to the IPU report,

“some of the subpoenaed witnesses had signed statements when heard by the investigating services, declaring that Mr. Barghouti might have been informed of certain bomb attacks before they had taken place, or that he may have sent money to finance the attacks, or had ordered the purchase of weapons for the attacks.”

Might have and may have.

The whole trial was a one big media event. Rostrums were installed outside the courtrooms so that the spokespersons of the judicial and government authorities would be able to talk to the press.

 During his detention, Barghouti managed to publish an op-ed in Washington Post (2002) titled “Want security? End the occupation”.  Here he wrote:

“And while I, and the Fatah movement to which I belong, strongly oppose attacks and the targeting of civilians inside Israel, our future neighbor, I reserve the right to protect myself, to resist the Israeli occupation of my country and to fight for my freedom. If Palestinians are expected to negotiate under occupation, then Israel must be expected to negotiate as we resist that occupation. I am not a terrorist, but neither am I a pacifist. I am simply a regular guy from the Palestinian street advocating only what every other oppressed person has advocated — the right to help myself in the absence of help from anywhere else.”

This is the notion that Israel desperately sought to puncture, and the one which it seeks to puncture now.

The more Barghouti appears as a freedom fighter, the more Israel’s oppression is magnified, and vice versa. So if you can make him into a “terrorist”, then that immediately dispels what he is saying. But when it comes to Nelson Mandela, we’re quick to forget all that.

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