Monday, April 14, 2008

The Barghouti Trial

[This is a little longer than usual. Seeing that it is more a personal narrative than a dense theoretical musing I hope you will indulge me. Thanks]

The title read: "Presidential Guard Attacks Barghouti 's Children". A picture of Barghouti's son was attached to the article;* he looked much older than when I last saw him six years ago.

Marwan Barghouti is a prominent Palestinian leader. A moderate, that turned to extremism during the "Second Palestinian Intifada" (2001/2). He was captured by Israeli forces in 2002 and tried for ordering terrorist attacks. He was convicted and has been incarcerated ever since.

Barghouti was tried in a civil court (rather than a military court), which is unusual for Palestinians tried for security offenses. It seems that the idea, which was pathetically executed, was to use his trial as a means to vicariously try the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian terror, which at the time were running rampant.

This was during the aftermath of a horrific period in Israel – the worst I ever experienced. People were being murdered everyday in the streets. For me, there were two months during which not a week went by without being in hearing distance of a blast. Barghouti was one of the main leaders of this surge in violence and for a short time it seemed that his trial would take on symbolic significance.

The trial was to take place in the Tel-Aviv District Court, where I was clerking at the time. In fact, the chambers of “my Judge” were on the same floor. On the first day of the trial our floor was packed with people. There were members of the Israeli fascist-right – yelling that Barghuti should be executed (there is no death penalty in Israeli civil courts, except for Nazis and their collaborators), people from the Israeli far-left, some Palestinians who were supporting Barghouti, family members of terror victims were also there, as well as politicians and the media. In other words, it was a mad house of yelling, crying, pushing, and shoving. At one point a “prominent” member of the Israeli fascists assaulted one of the Palestinians and was arrested. The various factions continued to yell at each other as security carried him out kicking and screaming. The worst moment for me was seeing a young traditionally dressed Arab Israeli Muslim women and the Jewish parents of a murdered child shouting at each other. The parents were simple people, clearly uneducated and not very eloquent. The woman, in contrast, was very sharp, so that even in Hebrew it was no contest. The parents, lacking the composure, the arguments or even the words to express their anger and pain were left ridiculed with nothing but rude gestures left in their arsenal.

Using the court’s internal passageways (not open to the public), I was able to get past the metal detectors and the crowd leading up to the entrance of the courtroom. It was not a large room, and hundreds who were hoping to enter were left outside.

I sat down at the very back row, looking at the crowd. A minute later a man and woman came in accompanied by two or three little children. I estimated their ages to be between 10 and 15, maybe younger. I think there were one or two boys and a girl. "It's the family, his children, let them through," I heard someone say. The wife was seated next to me, her children and the man, then, sat next to her. When the room was more or less filled the defendant was brought in, surrounded by guards. They unshackled him and he sat down on the defendant’s bench.

His wife and children rose. She gestured to them with her hands, as if she was saying "go go." They leaped ahead, shouting "baba baba". Barghouti heard them and stood up, looking back with surprise. The children were jumping over the wooden benches and between people's heads, trying to get to him. One of the guards saw them lunging in the direction of the defendant and tried to block their way, stretching his arms to the sides. Just before the boy was about to run into the guard, the head of security gestured with his head, and the circle around Barghouti broke, letting the children reach their father.

When the judges finally entered, most of the interesting part was over. The defendant denied the legitimacy of the court and claimed he was a "freedom fighter". In response the head of the panel said that "freedom fighters do not send homicide bombers to kill children" (proving, right of the bat, that this panel was out of its depth). The indictment was read into the record and the defendant was remanded and taken below. The hearing was over.

The room slowly emptied. The energy began flowing back from the courtroom into the hall, where the commotion was re-igniting. The last people left in the courtroom, as I exited, were some of the lawyers, a few reporters and the defendant's family. I ducked into the nearby "employees only" door, which lead back into the internal passageways of the court. There, on the internal staircase, stood the judge who was heading the panel, one or two of the defendant's attorneys, a prosecutor and a security officer, all bunched together. The defense attorney was attempting to convince the judge to have the defendant brought back up to the courtroom from the "holding tombs", so he could see his family. The judge protested. She said that the court was not the proper venue for family visits and that such requests are handled by the detention facility. The lawyer then explained that Barghouti had not seen his children in months, and considering that they somehow managed to get all the way to Tel-Aviv from the West Bank (not a small feat), it would be cruel not to allow it. At least I think that is what he said, although my memory may have filled in the blanks on its own. In any case, the judge was swayed.

I doubt whether this could have happened in the U.S., where “policy” and “procedure” leave so little room for such singular autonomous human gestures. Even when people muster the strength to consider “the policy,” their practical reasoning usually quickly slides into the slippery slope of the slippery slope argument, or into formal arguments of fairness. It is amusing to hear these arguments in concert: “what if everyone were allowed to see their children in court? It would be chaotic, and besides, it is not fair to allow him to see his children in court since others are not allowed either.” The more valid argument (which you also hear in the U.S.) may be that he did not deserve this kindness. In any case, I was pleased with the judge’s decision.

When it was all over, two things resonated with me most: the gap between how dramatic it all sounds and how non-dramatic it actually was, and how scripted it all appeared. Everyone there acted as they were supposed to act, entering and exiting the stage on cue and playing out roles already written for them and familiar to all. Except for the children leaping and for the judge showing compassion behind the scenes, it was all so predictable – “the political” we all know manifesting itself in actuality. It was like seeing concepts and national narratives written in flesh. On its face what I witnessed that day has the makings of a great drama, and in the hands of a crafty writer could make an excellent story. In reality it was banal, and the only drama occurred when people stepped out of their prescribed political and legal roles and became individuals.

That was the last I saw of those children. Not until a few months ago, when Palestinian soldiers attacked them for no good reason.


Posted by Ori Herstein


Sherry F. Colb said...

Thank you, Ori, for sharing this riveting account on the blog. I think you are right about the unlikelihood of such exceptions to bureaucratic policy occurring in the U.S. Even keeping the courthouse open until 5:01pm appears beyond the pale to some judges here. Whether or not the prisoner deserved to meet with his children, the children certainly deserved to be able to see their father. Responsiveness to this is a sign of justice tempered with mercy and is praiseworthy.

Sobek said...

"...the children certainly deserved to be able to see their father."

The same might be said of the children of Barghouti's victims, yes? Oh, but screw them.

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