MANHATTAN (CN) – One of the most recognized participants in Mideast peace process, Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi testified that she met with the late Yasser Arafat “hundreds of times” during the wave of violence known as the Second Intifada.
They spoke often those days about trying to stop the terrorist attacks that the Palestinian Authority stands accused of perpetrating, Ashrawi told a New York jury on Tuesday.
As one of her government’s key witnesses, Ashrawi recounted spending much of the turn of the millennium meeting with high-ranking U.S., Israeli and Palestinian officials during the lead-up to the Oslo Accords.
Dating back to the George H.W. Bush administration, Ashrawi’s role in the negotiations continued to the time then-President Bill Clinton arranged Arafat’s historic handshake with the late Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn in 1993.
Palestinian government lawyer Brian Hill, of the Washington-based firm Miller & Chevalier, flashed a picture of that iconic event before the jury and followed it up with an image from the Camp David meetings seven years later.
In the latter photo – taken shortly before the spate of attacks that killed dozens and maimed hundreds in the early 2000s – then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak appeared smiling next to Arafat.
With political discussions barred from trial, neither the lawyers for the victims nor the Palestinian government can comment on what led the peace talks to deteriorate during those years.
They can only argue whether the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization supported the attacks, which were carried out mostly by members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and Hamas.
Several family members of the victims of these attacks, represented the Israeli legal organization Shurat Ha’Din – which has been involved in several similar lawsuits – allege that the more mainstream Palestinian governing bodies encouraged the violence through personnel, payments and propaganda.
They submitted internal Palestinian Authority records appearing to link employees to bombings, pictures of Arafat and his successor embracing militant leaders, and financial papers of so-called “martyr payments” to incarcerated attackers and their families.
Providing a starkly different view, Ashrawi told the jury that she “tried to appeal to everyone to stop the violence” as “morally abhorrent,” in town meetings and public statements.
The bloodshed also “did not serve the cause of freedom and justice,” Ashrawi said.
Ashrawi was elected twice to the Palestinian Legislative Council, a subdivision of the Palestinian Authority.
She said that she had been living across from the Mukataa, or presidential compound, when it was “destroyed” by Israel in 2002.
This portion of her testimony drew a stream of objections from the victims’ lawyer, Kent Yalowitz, who cast the subject as an attempt to inject the politics into the case.
The Israeli army’s attacks on this and other Palestinian Authority facilities around this time went unsaid.
But U.S. District Judge George Daniells allowed Ashrawi’s testimony here as another component of her government’s defense, that the attacks on their institutions stymied their obligations to prevent terror under the Oslo Accords.
Ashrawi testified the Israeli strikes made work difficult for the Palestinian Authority forces.
“Well, the police station was totally destroyed,” Ashrawi said. “It was two, three blocks from my home.”
She said that because of her proximity to Arafat’s compound, her own “windows and doors were blown up.”
Israeli-imposed “divisions and checkpoints” and “curfews” also complicated matters, Ashrawi said, before a sustained objection struck that comment from the record.
On cross-examination, Yalowitz emphasized – and Ashrawi agreed – that none of these events excused killing innocent civilians.
In a steady stream of questions, Yalowitz asked whether harboring, paying, glorifying and providing safe harbor to terrorists was “morally unacceptable.”
Ashrawi answered each time that it was.
The Palestinian government’s case winds down with three more witnesses expected on Wednesday.
The trial then takes a long hiatus before its expected end next Tuesday.
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