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Palestinians Convict 4 in Assassination

April 26, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GAZA CITY — In a makeshift courtroom Thursday, Palestinian officials hastily convicted and sentenced to prison four men in the killing of an Israeli Cabinet minister, steps taken in a bid to alleviate Israel's siege on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Acting inside Arafat's battered and surrounded headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, a military officer took less than a day to pronounce the men guilty of violating Palestinian national interests.

Israeli officials immediately dismissed the procedure as a sham and reiterated their demand that the men be extradited to Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said it was too bad they would have to be tried twice.

"They will anyway be brought to trial in Israel," he said.

Palestinians had hoped that by trying the suspects, who have been holed up in Arafat's compound for weeks, Israel would ease its siege. The blockade of Arafat's headquarters and the standoff between the Israeli army and Palestinian gunmen at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity remain the two most volatile unresolved remnants of Israel's massive three-week West Bank offensive.

But Thursday's proceedings appeared to satisfy virtually no one.

The men were accused of assassinating Rehavam Zeevi, Israel's conservative tourism minister. He was shot three times at a hotel in East Jerusalem in October.

The convicted men are militants from the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leading faction of Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. The PFLP claimed that it was avenging Israel's earlier assassination of the faction's leader, Mustafa Zibri, better known as Abu Ali Mustafa.

Zeevi's slaying was the first of a top Israeli political official by Palestinians, and it sent shock waves through Israel. Sharon sent tanks into Bethlehem to pressure Arafat to arrest the suspects, then surrounded his headquarters in December because the Palestinian Authority president had failed to act. In thinly veiled threats, Sharon has let it be known that he is considering storming the compound to seize the men.

Videotape released by the Palestinian Authority showed the four men flanked by armed guards at their trial. They appeared gaunt and unshaven. One of the men, Ahed Ghoulmi, sat in a wheelchair, his leg bandaged.

Ghoulmi, who heads the military wing of the PFLP, was sentenced to one year in prison. Israel accuses him of ordering the killing, along with the head of the faction, Ahmed Saadat, who was not tried.

The convicted triggerman, Hamdi Quran, was sentenced to 18 years of hard labor. The lookout, Basel Asmar, received 12 years, and the getaway driver, Majdi Rimawi, eight.

The videotape shows the men being led away. It is unclear where they might serve their sentences, because most Palestinian jails have been destroyed in Israeli attacks.

Under interim peace accords, Israel can demand the extradition of suspects, but the Palestinians can avoid that by prosecuting them in their own courts.

The PFLP condemned the convictions as a farce that brings shame on the Palestinian people. In Gaza City, at the school of three 14-year-olds who were killed this week by the Israeli army as they reportedly tried to attack a Jewish settlement, teachers hailed the convicted men as heroes who should be freed.

"Why don't they try the ones who killed Abu Ali Mustafa?" Principal Basem Wahidi asked.

Israelis, however, were dismissive of what Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer termed a show trial. Israel has accused the PFLP of car bombings and other attacks.

"This was an Israeli minister killed in Israel, and it is Israel that must put them on trial," said Tzipi Livni, minister without portfolio. "There is no justice system there [in the Palestinian territories], unless you call justice the lynching of people who helped Israel."

She was referring to the recent slayings by Palestinian vigilantes of alleged collaborators with Israel.

Zeevi's son, Yiftah-Palmach Zeevi, similarly decried Thursday's action as an "imaginary trial that made a mockery of the state of Israel."

"The assassination of a minister in the capital city--that is a blow to Israel's sovereignty," he said. "I demand that the killers be brought to trial in Israel, no matter in what condition."

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