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An ominous prelude
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 28 - 02 - 2002

Azmi Bishara, the most prominent Palestinian politician in Israel, was put on trial in an Israeli court yesterday for the second time in less than three months -- charged with supporting a terrorist organisation. Jonathan Cook reports from Nazareth
Crowds of several hundred supporters of prominent Palestinian member of the Israeli Kenesset, Azmi Bishara, converged on the square outside the court building where he is being tried in Nazareth yesterday, waving Palestinian flags. Some wore stickers bearing Bishara's face and the legend "J'accuse" -- a reference to the Dreyfus affair, the trial of a Jewish army officer in 19th century France often cited as an archetypal example of anti-semitism.
Bishara, a combative and outspoken figure among the handful of Palestinian Members of Knesset (MKs), is being prosecuted for two speeches -- made a year apart -- in which he praised resistance to the occupation of Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. If found guilty, he faces up to three years in jail.
The small courtroom where the trial opened yesterday was packed with lawyers, TV camera crews, journalists, Arab MKs and leaders of the Arab minority.
The path to trial was cleared in November when the Knesset voted to lift Bishara's parliamentary immunity so that the attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, could indict him on two separate charges: one relating to the two speeches, and the other to trips he made to Syria. Both charges are based on emergency laws dating back to 1948.
It is the first time a politician has been stripped of his immunity for his political activities. In previous cases, the Knesset has removed the immunity of an MK only if he was suspected of committing a crime.
Bishara has maintained throughout that the cases are politically motivated and part of a wider campaign by the government to silence the one million Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Shortly before the hearing, Bishara said that even if he were acquitted it would be only "the beginning of the campaign." One of his lawyers, Riad Anis, added that this was a trial of all Israel's Arabs and not only Bishara.
At yesterday's hearing, the case became mired in legal arguments with the judges over Bishara's defence attempt to focus on the political motivation behind the trial. After a recess, the judges allowed the lawyers to make their presentation.
Hassan Jabareen, of the Adala (or Justice) legal centre, submitted several press cuttings from June last year, after the Syria speech. The reports said that the attorney general consulted with the Shin Bet security service and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon before filing the indictment. Jabareen argued that this pointed to the political goals behind the case.
Jabareen said the fact that Bishara's actions had been "criminalised is an effort to de-legitimise not his speech in Syria but what he represents." He added, "No-one is interested in what Azmi Bishara really said."
Israeli posecutors, meanwhile, alleged that Bishara had incited violence and supported a terrorist organisation in his two speeches, one of which was delivered in Umm Al-Fahm in northern Israel in the summer of 2000 and the other in Syria last June at a memorial service for the late President Hafez Al-Assad.
In the Umm Al-Fahm speech, Bishara praised the struggle by Hizbullah in forcing Israel to withdraw from south Lebanon, while in the Syria speech he urged Arabs to support the Intifada and the resistance to occupation of the Palestinian territories.
The Syrian speech, which was televised and showed Bishara next to Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, was reported to have outraged Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Bishara's lawyers claimed yesterday that the Knesset had no power to lift the MK's immunity. The judges were told that Bishara was protected because he made the speeches in his capacity as an MK and that the opinions expressed reflected the political platform of his party, the National Democratic Assembly.
The defence team also argued that the texts of both speeches did not contravene any article of the regulation cited: the Anti-Terror Ordinance of 1948. The case was adjourned for the judges to decide whether Bishara has a case to answer.
If they allow the prosecution to go ahead, the trial risks turning into an embarrassing examination of Israel's occupation policies, both in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
It is also likely to draw international criticism. Yesterday's proceedings were watched by seven foreign observers, including two members of the European Parliament.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union, a Swiss-based organisation representing 160 national parliaments, added their voice, writing to Bishara's lawyers to condemn the trial.
Many in the Palestinian minority fear that the case is a prelude to much harsher treatment of them by Israel, leading possibly to the outlawing of some of their political parties.
In the earlier trial, heard in Nazareth magistrate's court in December, Bishara was indicted for helping 800 elderly Palestinian citizens of Israel to visit relatives in Syria. Prosecutors argued that he and two assistants who arranged the trips were in breach of an emergency regulation which classifies Syria as an enemy state.
Bishara's legal team surprised the court by handing over his service passport, given to him in 1996 when he became an MK, and arguing that all holders of such a passport were exempt from the regulation.
The judges are expected to finish their preliminary deliberations on whether to carry on with the earlier trial in the next few weeks.
In addition to Bishara's trial, six other Palestinian MKs are currently under investigation, either for incitement or sedition, after expressing support for Palestinian resistance in the West Bank and Gaza. The Shin Bet security service has stepped up its monitoring of the Palestinian population, claiming that it is a nest of terrorist cells plotting to harm Israel.
In the past few months there have been public campaigns, taken up by right-wing cabinet ministers, for the country's Palestinian citizens to be expelled.
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