February 24, 2004 Special Dispatch No. 666

Controversy in the Palestinian Authority Over the Trial of Four Suspects in Attack on U.S. Convoy

February 24, 2004
Palestine | Special Dispatch No. 666

On February 5, 2004, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv published announcements in the Palestinian Authority (PA) daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadidaand in the Palestinian daily Al- Qudsoffering up to $5 million for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators of the October 15, 2003 attack on a U.S. diplomatic convoy en route to administer U.S. Fulbright scholarships in Gaza, in which three American security personnel were killed. [1]

An advisor to Yasser Arafat acknowledged that the U.S. has threatened to halt its own and others' aid to the Palestinian Authority if serious measures were not taken to apprehend the culprits. [2] In response to this pressure, the PA convened the first session of the military trial of four men accused of carrying out the attack. The session was subsequently postponed until February 29 so that the accused could hire an attorney. A representative for the prosecution said that the four accused men possessed explosives and weapons, and had at different times set anti-tank explosive charges, and speculated that perhaps a mine had exploded as the convoy passed. [3]

The opening of the trial has provoked a flood of reactions from those involved, and from other Palestinian elements. The following is an overview of Palestinian reactions to the trial:

'Popular Resistance Committees' Condemns Trial of 'Honorable, Loyal Palestinians'

One of the accused mendenied that the four were involved at all, and claimed that they had not received sufficient advance warning of the trial, and for that reason had not had time to appoint an attorney to defend them. [4]

During a demonstration for solidarity with the four accused men in front of the Palestinian Legislative Council building in Gaza, where the trial was taking place, the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), to which the four detainees belonged, claimed that their trial contravened the view of the investigative security committee that Yasser Arafat had established to investigate the attack – that is, that the four had no connection to the affair. The PRC claimed that during a meeting on January 5, American officials had even been told that this was the case.

The PRC condemned Arafat's disregard of the conclusions of the investigative security committee, and said that it sees this as "a dangerous thing, and [as] contempt for the legal system." The PRC also threatened that if the four were not released, they would employ all "legal and illegal means to release them from prison." [5]

According to PRC members, the armed demonstration was only the first step, and the military wing will not stand idly by. The PRC would also accuse the PA of cutting a deal with the U.S. for the "the trial of honorable, loyal members of the Palestinian people." [6]

During the demonstration, a PRC spokesmansent a pointed message to top PA officials, saying: "Five million dollars is enough for you to sell your consciences, but your lives and the lives of your sons will not be enough to release our four members." [7]

PLC Member: Don't 'Hand Over Our Sons to Our Enemies'

Former Palestinian Communications Minister and current Palestinian Legislative Council member 'Imad Al-Falouji, who also participated in the solidarity demonstration, criticized the PA for holding a military trial for the four accused men, saying that it was an example of trading in the blood of the Palestinians. Al-Falouji called on the PA "not to hand over our sons to our enemies."

Al-Falouji added that the Palestinian Legislative Council has decided to take several measures, including meeting with some representatives of the military prosecutors and with the four accused men, so as to hear from them what really happened. He said: "As long as the four have not confessed to the charges, they must be released." He also called on Legislative Council members to resign if the detainees are not released. [8]

Several days after the demonstration, Al-Falouji wrote an article titled 'Who Killed the Three Americans in Gaza?' charging that Israel had carried out the attack. Al-Falouji reached this conclusion after eliminating the possibility that the Palestinian resistance factions had done so because they had declared that the resistance was aimed only at the Israeli occupation, and because it is inconceivable that the Palestinian factions would plant explosives and not dismantle them after the IDF's retreat.

Al-Falouji was also critical of the U.S. for publishing its announcement of the $5 million reward for information leading to the apprehension of the culprits, because the announcement appeared after the arrest of the four accused men. He added: "Is it only among us that Americans are killed without anyone knowing who is responsible for it?" [9]

Other Criticism of the Trial

Fatah's military wing, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, also published a communiqué, which stated that there is no proof that the accused are connected to the deaths of the Americans, and continued: "Instead of pursuing the agents, the traitors, and the corrupt who do as they wish, the PA has begun putting on trial innocent fighters [and thus] demanding of our people to turn our throats to the enemy to slash them as it sees fit. Perhaps this will satisfy the aggressive spirit [of the enemy], or satisfy the American administration that at every opportunity declares that it supports our enemy." [10]

Former Palestinian minister of internal security affairs Muhammad Dahlan said that the absence of evidence sufficient to convict the suspects indicates that they are victims of the confusion prevailing in the Palestinian arena. [11]

In a communiqué, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights protested against the trial being held in a military tribunal, and said that in its view this tribunal was like the state security tribunals that the PA announced it had stopped. The PCHR also demanded that the matter be transferred to a civil court, so as to ensure a fair trial. [12]

[1] For more on this issue, see Palestinian Reactions to the U.S. Convoy Bombing in Gaza, November 7, 2003, 'Palestinian Reactions to the U.S. Convoy Bombing in Gaza.'

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 7, 2004.

[3] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), February 8, 2004.

[4] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), February 8, 2004.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 11, 2004.

[6] Al-Hayat (London), February 11, 2004.

[7] Al-Hayat (London), February 11, 2004.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 11, 2004.

[9] Al-Quds (PA), February 15, 2004; Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), February 14, 2004.

[10] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 11, 2004. Also, the father of one of the detainees said that the trial is illegal and that trials of this kind should be held for the Palestinians accused of 'collaboration' with Israeli authorities. Al-Ayyam (PA), February 11, 2004.

[11] Al-Ayyam (PA), February 11, 2004.

[12] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), February 8, 2004.

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