Palestinian leader denies Israeli charges

TEL AVIV, Israel – In the theatrical opening to the groundbreaking trial of a Palestinian leader, Marwan Barghouti raised his manacled hands Wednesday and denied Israeli charges that he orchestrated more than three dozen attacks against Israelis.

“I will keep fighting on till I get my freedom,” shouted Barghouti, the first senior Palestinian brought before an Israeli civilian court.

Barghouti, 43, is the second-most popular Palestinian leader, trailing only Yasser Arafat in recent polls among Palestinians.

He launched his spirited self-defense immediately upon entering the Tel Aviv District Court in what is expected to be a lengthy trial that will also focus on the larger political dramas of the Mideast conflict.

Israel believes it has strong evidence showing that Barghouti and other top Palestinian figures, including Arafat, are directly responsible for attacks against Israeli civilians. Barghouti re-quested and received money from Arafat, then used the funds to purchase weapons for militants who carried out shooting attacks, the prosecution charged in the indictment.

Barghouti was “a central figure in the decision making” of militant groups and worked closely with Arafat, “who sits at the head of the terrorist organizations,” the indictment said. He was indicted on charges of murder, attempted murder and involvement in terrorist organizations.

Barghouti, meanwhile, refused to recognize the court, and said Israel’s 35-year military occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was the main source of tensions.

“The policy of assassinations, curfews, house demolitions, the policy of occupation will not lead to security,” Barghouti said before the proceedings formally began. “Peace will be achieved by one way … by the end of the occupation.”

Barghouti was twice brought into the court, only to be dragged away by police after he began speaking to journalists who climbed on the benches in the visitor’s gallery. The bearded Barghouti spoke alternately in Hebrew, Arabic and English, gesturing feverishly with his cuffed hands.

“The uprising will be victorious,” Barghouti said. Asked how he felt, the defendant said, “Baruch Hashem,” or “God be praised,” a Hebrew expression commonly used by observant Jews. He was ushered into the court for a third time just before the proceedings started.

Barghouti is the West Bank leader of Arafat’s Fatah movement, and is a charismatic speaker who was a fixture at street protests during the early days of the Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000.

Despite the tensions at the trial, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met on Wednesday with five Palestinian Cabinet ministers, his spokesman said. It was the largest meeting of its kind since Peres renewed talks with Palestinian leaders in June.

A Peres aide said Israel agreed to transfer $14 million in tax money to the Palestinian Authority, the second of three payments. They also discussed ways to ease economic hardship facing the Palestinians.

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