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 requested and received money from Arafat, then used the funds to purchase weapons for militants who carried out attacks, the prosecution charged in the indictment.
Barghouti was "a central figure in the decision making" of militant groups and worked closely with Arafat, the indictment said. He was indicted on charges of murder, attempted murder and involvement in terrorist organizations.
Barghouti 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 began.
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, wearing a dark brown prison uniform, spoke alternately in Hebrew, Arabic and English, gesturing feverishly with his cuffed hands.
"The uprising will be victorious," Barghouti said. He was ushered into the court for a third time just before the proceedings started.
Despite the tensions at the trial, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met on Wednesday with five Palestinian Cabinet ministers, his spokesman said. A Peres aide said Israel agreed to transfer $14 million in tax money to the Palestinian Authority, the second of three payments.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians refused to discuss an Israeli proposal that would have used Gaza as a test case to pull Israeli forces back and turn security over to the Palestinians, because it would appear to separate Gaza from the West Bank.
Also, Israeli forces killed a senior Hamas militant in the West Bank village of Tubas, the military and residents said. The military said Nasser Jerar, 44, was planning attacks, including blowing up a high-rise building in Israel.
A neighbor who was sent by the army to urge Jerar to surrender was shot dead. The neighbor's family said he was killed by the army, but the army said the shooting came from inside the house.
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.
He was arrested April 15 by Israeli troops in the West Bank and is the first senior Palestinian figure to face trial in the nearly two years of violence.
As Barghouti commented freely, Judge Tzvi Gurfinkel asked him to be quiet and said he would not permit the defendant to "turn this court into a political stage." Gurfinkel set the next hearing for Sept. 5.
Israeli legal analyst Moshe Negbi said Barghouti is the only senior Palestinian ever put on trial in a civilian court. Israel has occasionally tried Palestinian leaders in military courts, though not in recent years.
Barghouti maintains he is only a politician, but Israel says he was the key figure in organizing attacks by members of a Fatah-affiliated militia, the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade. The indictment alleges he was linked to 37 attacks that claimed 26 lives over the past two years.
Prosecutor Devorah Chen said her case would include testimony of militants in the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades who were recently captured by Israel.
As the Fatah leader, Barghouti was in regular contact with many young activists who are Fatah members and are also active in the Al Aqsa militia.
When Israelis and Palestinians were negotiating in the 1990s, Barghouti developed friendships with some Israeli officials and helped persuade Fatah activists to recognize Israel.
Israeli security officials have said Barghouti was gradually drawn into direct involvement in attacks, first defending them, then funneling money to militants, and finally orchestrating them.
Israeli officials have claimed that during questioning, Barghouti acknowledged orchestrating attacks. But Barghouti and his lawyers have denied this.
Defense attorney Jawad Boulos said he would not call witnesses and that Barghouti does not recognize the jurisdiction of the Israeli court.
"I have a long indictment, with 50 clauses, to bring against Israel for the bloodshed of both peoples," said Barghouti.