Israeli Arab MP faces jail for praising use of force

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The Independent Online

Israel's perilously strained relations with its Arab minority came under fresh stress yesterday as the trial began in Nazareth of the country's most prominent Arab parliamentarians. International human and civil rights organisations rallied to the support of Azmi Bishara, the first member of Israel's Knesset to go on trial for making political statements in the 54-year history of the state.

The case against Mr Bishara, who is accused of incitement for praising Hizbollah guerrillas and encouraging Palestinians to resist Israeli occupation, comes at a time when relations between Israel's 6.4 million Jews and 1.2 million Arabs are close to breaking point. He faces up to three years in prison, if found guilty.

The Arab minority, long the victim of state-endorsed prejudice, is still awaiting an explanation for the killing of 13 Israeli Arabs by the police during riots in the early days of the Palestinian intifada. It is being investigated by a commission of inquiry. The commission reportedly sent letters yesterday to the Israel's former prime minister Ehud Barak and other officials warning they could face prosecution.

Supporters waving placards greeted the arrival of Mr Bishara at the courthouse for the opening of the trial amid heavy security. Some waved Palestinian flags; a delegation of from the occupied Golan Heights brandished the Syrian colours. Some sang nationalist songs.

Mr Bishara, whose hearing is being observed by the European, Norwegian and Swedish parliaments and by the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights Organisations, denied wrongdoing. As leader of the National Democratic Assembly party, he is one of 12 Arabs in Israel's 120-member Knesset, which voted in November to lift his immunity from prosecution.

Mr Bishara argues that he is committed to the Palestinians' right to overthrow Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but he has never called for the use of force. He said: "What the Israeli right wing is trying to do with the support of the Israeli security forces . . . is to redraw the limits of Israeli democracy so that Arab patriotic or Arab national, democratic or progressive forces will be excluded."

At issue in the trial are two recent statements by Mr Bishara. In May 2001, he said in a speech to Israeli Arabs: "Lebanon has presented a tiny model from which . . . we can draw the conclusions necessary for success and victory". He said of the guerrillas who forced Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon in May 2000: "Hizbollah has won, and for the first time since 1967 we have known the taste of victory."

In June, at a conference of Arab leaders in Syria, Mr Bishara said the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, was trying to drag the region into war and that Arabs should choose "the path of resistance".

As the trial began, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia met the EU envoy Javier Solana and said he planned to press ahead with his land-for-peace offer to end the conflict. Its adoption by an Arab summit next month would be his first target, he said.

Israeli troops killed four armed Arabs in gun battles yesterday, and a Palestinian shot dead an Israeli factory manager in a political killing.