Former Palestinian Authority higher education and research minister Hanan Ashrawi testified on behalf of the PA in the first US terrorism trial against the PA.
While highly anticipated due to her status as one of the best-known Palestinians leaders internationally – there had even been a last-minute attempt by the plaintiffs to block her from appearing, as well as an eleventh- hour out-of-court deposition – her testimony in Manhattan’s federal district court late Tuesday was unexpectedly brief.
The case revolves around several attacks in Jerusalem during the second intifada: a January 22, 2002, assault-rifle attack; suicide bombings on January 27, March 21 and June 19, 2002, and on January 29, 2004; and a large-scale bombing on July 31, 2002.
The families of victims allege, in Judge George B. Daniels’s words, that the PLO carried out terrorist acts to “terrorize, intimidate and coerce the civilian population of Israel into acquiescing to [the] defendants’ political goals and demands, and to influence the policy of the United States and Israeli governments in favor of accepting [the] defendants’ political goals and demands.”
The case could carry up to a billion-dollar price tag and massive negative implications for the PA.
Ashrawi appeared confident and composed when she took the stand, detailing her close relationships with senior officials on all sides of the Arab-Israeli peace process. She noted that she had met with Yasser Arafat “hundreds of times.”
Defense lawyers used her testimony to describe the destruction she witnessed during the second intifada.
“Rubble,” Ashrawi said, referring to the Palestinian security facilities in Ramallah, including Yassar Arafat’s headquarters, which were across the street from her house. “I saw the police training headquarters and the prison totally destroyed.”
Ashrawi’s descriptions of the destruction in her neighborhood served to illuminate the defense’s point that Palestinian security forces were severely hampered in their ability to do their jobs.
“Around my area there were no streets, there were tanks and there was nothing. So it was very difficult for anybody to move,” Ashrawi said. “There were no security forces around, actually, at that time.”
Asked about her and the PA’s opposition to terrorism, she said: “I knew and lots of my friends knew that this was counterproductive, that it really damaged our cause and didn’t serve the cause of the PLO, nor the cause of freedom and justice. So we tried to prevent violence from all sides.”
But Ashrawi grew visibly uneasy after plaintiffs’ counsel Kent Yalowitz began rising from his chair to object to nearly every question, with Daniels sustaining many of the objections.
On one occasion, she turned to the judge to ask if she could answer a question although no objection had been raised.
Yalowitz even elicited a few apologies from the witness as he repeatedly leapt from his seat to object to her testimony.
When the plaintiffs’ lawyers opposed allowing Ashrawi, a last-second addition by the defense, to testify, the court said she could help explain the payments made to Palestinian prisoners – a subject she never actually addressed.
Plaintiffs have argued she had no specific knowledge of the events at issue in the trial.
After general testimony that largely chronicled her work on the Oslo Accords and other touchstone moments in the Arab-Israeli peace process, the plaintiffs’ lawyers had not changed their minds.
“I’m not sure why she came,” Yalowitz said.
“To tell us that Arafat won the Nobel Prize?” Earlier on Tuesday, Maj.-Gen. Majid Faraj, head of the PA’s General Intelligence Service – which was characterized for the jury as “the Palestinian CIA” – picked up where he had left off on Monday.
Faraj’s testimony centered on what he knew about the relationship between the PLO, the PA, Fatah and Hamas. He sparred with plaintiffs’ counsel during his cross-examination and frequently descending into exacting language that further descended into a semantic skirmish that the plaintiffs characterized as evasive.
During cross-examination, the plaintiffs argued that former Fatah-Tanzim head Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life terms and 40 years imprisonment in Israel for five murders and an attempted murder, cut a deal during the second intifada in which he obtained the release from a PA prison of a relative, Abdullah Barghouti, who was involved in several deadly terrorist attacks. Yalowitz was trying to break down Faraj’s argument that the PA had nothing to do with some of the terrorism charges directed at the PLO and Fatah.
Faraj presented himself as having been trained by Western security services to fight terrorism, and even of having fought against Hamas.
In attacking this testimony, Yalowitz showed a video deposition by Mosab Hassan Yusef, who claimed to have been present during Abdullah Barghouti’s arrest.
They “cut a deal with Marwan Barghouti” for Abdullah Barghouti to go with the Palestinian Security Services, and the PSS “would release him afterward,” Yusef said in the video shown to the jury.
Abdullah Barghouti is serving 67 life sentences in an Israeli prison.