Sunday, 13 July 2008

An Unlikely Alliance

What brings together a Rabbi’s granddaughter and a Palestinian militant? Ori Golan reports on this unlikely alliance.

When she was 16, Gisèle Halimi decided to test God. Brought up in an observant Jewish home in Tunisia, where her grandfather was a rabbi, she was made to believe that only if prayed for God’s blessing and observed his laws would he grant her success in school. That morning, on leaving home to take a French exam at school, she deliberately did not kiss the mezuzah, the parchment on the doorposts of Jewish homes, as observant Jews are obliged to. Would he punish her for her defiance? Will she fail her exam? "The highest grade goes to Gisèle – as usual," announced the teacher to the class the following day. And that was that. God, she concluded, had lost. She could get by without him.

Sixty years on, at 76, she still gets by without God. Elegant, poised and defiant, this celebrated lawyer, prolific writer and champion of women’s causes, remains an irredeemable iconoclast who continues to challenge authority with the conviction and tenacity of a rebel.
In her Paris office Halimi explains why she is currently representing Marwan Barghouti, leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the Palestinian militant group responsible for carrying out attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians, which have killed and maimed an estimated 200 civilians ranging in age from 8 months to 79 years.

Barghouti, 43, is the most senior Palestinian to be tried by Israel. Once considered a likely successor to Arafat, he was seen as a moderate Palestinian and a supporter of the peace process. He speaks Hebrew fluently and in the post-Oslo heyday was involved in a number of peace initiatives between Israelis and Palestinians. Which is why many Israelis were astonished at his transformation into one of the most radical Palestinian figures.

Over 19 months he managed to dodge arrest – and an assassination attempt – by Israel’s security services. But then in April last year, in a swift raid on a house in Ramallah, details of which remain a closely guarded secret, their most wanted man was in their hands.
In the formal indictment handed down by the Israeli court last August, Barghouti was charged with leading and conducting suicide attacks on Israeli targets; pre-meditated murder, abetting murder, soliciting murder, attempted murder, conspiring to commit crimes, activity in terrorist organisation, and belonging to a terrorist organization.

"I was very impressed by him," says Halimi, following two recent meetings with him in Israel. "In France he’s very popular, you know. He is an intellectual, a political leader and a humanist."
It seems a somewhat odd way to describe a person who stands accused of 52 counts of terrorist- related activities. To Halimi, Barghouti is a freedom fighter; to many Israelis, a cold-blooded terrorist. "He is someone who suffers from the situation in his country. He would condemn all terrorism against Israel as soon as Israel ends its occupation of Palestine" explains Halimi on his behalf.

Those familiar with Halimi’s professional trajectory will not be surprised at this seemingly incongruous alliance between a rabbi’s granddaughter and a Palestinian militant. A qualified lawyer, in the 60s she acted as counsel for the Algerian National Liberation Front and represented Algerian militants seeking to end French rule; in Spain she pleaded for Basque separatists; and she fought the corner of four leftwing militants who had acted to overthrow the government of President Marien N’Gouabi, in the Congo. In 1967 she presided over the Russel Tribunal which investigated American crimes in Vietnam; and two years later, with the legendary feminist Simone de Beauvoir the group, founded Choisir, to defend the 343 Frenchwomen who had publicly admitted to having illegal abortions.

Whilst many say she blazed a new trail in feminist culture, Halimi, however, is not well received among some feminists. She is seen as a provocative headline grabber seeking to appropriate for herself causes which have been fought by others. In the 70s, she was accused of jumping on the abortion and rape bandwagon, even though few would deny that her stunning defence in the trials that followed paved the way to legalised contraception and abortions in France.
While her credentials clearly point to an affinity with freedom fighters, Halimi remains evasive about her views on terrorism.

"I condemn terrorism when it hits innocent people. But there are innocent victims for the best causes in the world. In Algiers, in Dresden…in Israel too, before its creation, there was terrorism. It’s important to ask the right questions. You say ‘why terrorism?’; I say: why occupation? As long as there is occupation, contrary to international law and UN resolutions, you can expect terrorism. Once there is an end to the occupation, not only will I condemn it, but there will be no terrorism."

In numerous public statements Barghouti has claimed that his trial was staged purely for political reasons. Halimi agrees:

"Generally speaking I think the Israeli internal system is democratic. But from an international law viewpoint, Israel is an outlaw."

The main question is: does the Israeli court have the right to judge Barghouti. I say no; the Israeli civilian tribunal is not competent to judge him. Firstly, the Geneva Convention prohibits the kidnapping of an individual from an occupied country. This constitutes a war crime. Secondly, as a member of the Palestinian National Council, he enjoys parliamentary immunity from prosecution. This judicial process contravenes international law, the signed bilateral accords between Israel and the Palestinians, and Israeli jurisprudence."

"Halimi’s claims" says a military source in Israel, "are selective and cynical. Agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been consistently and repeatedly breached by the Palestinian side. In particular, the Palestinian Authority has flouted its obligations under the Interim Agreement of September 1995 requiring it to ‘act immediately, efficiently and effectively against acts or threats of terrorism, violence or incitement’. Moreover, the Palestinians have not responded to any of Israel’s requests to arrest terrorists and transfer them to Israel for trial, as required by the agreements. Barghouti is a terrorist with blood – a lot of blood – on his hands. The claim that he enjoys immunity is not worthy of serious commentary. International law is not a suicide pact. Israel has the right and duty to protect its citizens' most basic human right: the right to live."

The question of Israel’s legitimacy to try Barghouti was considered by Israeli state prosecutor, Dvora Chen, who stated that the interim agreements signed between Israel and the PLO in no way prevent Israel from arresting and trying people who live within the Palestinian Authority for crimes carried out in Israel, or against Israelis.

Barghouti, insists Halimi, is a peace-seeking man. She believes the charges levelled against him are baseless. "What did they find in Barghouti’s correspondence? Letters from widows of suicide bombers, asking for money. The prosecution says it has testimonies from Palestinians implicating him in a number of terrorist attacks, but in April these witnesses revealed that the statements were extracted from them by force. I don’t believe that Barghouti planned or instigated any terrorist attacks, or that he has paid money to commit crimes – I don’t believe it. He has no blood on his hands."

There are, of course, other versions to this account. According to Israeli intelligence sources there is overwhelming evidence against Barghouti. When his trial resumes in September, prosecutors say they will present evidence showing that he was in continuous contact with Arafat, who funnelled money to Palestinian terrorists. "Among confiscated documents seized during Israel’s incursion into Ramallah" says a source privy to the case, "there were letters clearly linking Bargouti to various terrorist organisations and supplying them with money. For example, in a letter dated 19 April 2002 addressed to Arafat, Barghouti asks for $2000 to go to Ziad Muhammad Daas, who in January 2001 took part in the killing of two Israeli civilians."
Although Halimi is Barghouti’s legal counsel, she is barred from representing him in court, due to a legal restriction which bans foreign lawyers from pleading in an Israeli court. (The only instance when this ban was lifted was in 1961 when a German lawyer, Dr. Robert Servatius, took up the defence of Adolph Eichman because an Israeli defence lawyer could not be found). His local attorney is Jawad Boulus, from East Jerusalem, and he is represented in court by Shamai Leibowitz, grandson of world-renowned and controversial philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who famously described Israeli soldiers as "Judeo-Nazis".

Despite the fact that France has registered the highest number of incidents against Jewish targets in Europe, Halimi does not believe there is a rise in antisemitism in France. It is racism, she says, which can be imputed to events in Israel. "The problem is that most people see Jews as unconditional supporters of Israel and helping an unfair cause. If there was a solution to the Middle East problem then the problem of antisemitism will disappear."

To make her position clear, Halimi has publicly distanced herself from mainstream Jewish organisations. Lasts March, when the highest official Jewish institution in France, the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF), called for a demonstration in solidarity with Israel, Halimi, alongside a number of well-known intellectual French Jews responded with an acerbic open letter in Le Monde, ("Support Israel? Not in our name!") denouncing the actions of the Israeli government and insisting that French Jews have no right to speak in their name.
"As a lawyer, Halimi has every right to defend what she considers a just cause," says Marc Knobel from the CRIF. "All the same we feel that she tends to totally exonerate the Palestinian Authority from its own responsibilities and faults, and at the same time all-too-easily vilify Israel."

Indeed, in over an hour of conversation, Halimi does not mention Palestinians terrorism, or pass any judgement on Palestinian corruption, incitement or duplicity.

"There is nothing surprising in her defence of Barghouti, says feminist and sociologist, Dr. Liliane Kandel from the University of Paris 7. "It is in keeping with her long-standing anti-zionist stance. She has signed other petitions condemning the Israeli government and I doubt it very much if anyone in the Jewish community expects a change in her attitude. Her defence of Barghouti is manifestly an act dictated at as much by a desire to make a mark as by conviction."
Halimi makes no bones about her relationship with Israel. "I don’t have any particular solidarity with Israel, she says in an understated – almost ironic – manner. "Israel is a state like any other. The religious aspect, I don’t think it’s a good thing; it’s very dangerous for democracy. You know, the French constitution is one of only three constitutions, alongside Mexico and Turkey which is totally secular."

As she expounds on her atheist convictions, one cannot help but wonder what trajectory her life would have traced had she not passed her French exam with flying colours that day at school.

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