MANHATTAN (CN) - There is a "war of the minds" taking place on the streets of Palestine through the finances of the families of convicted terrorists, a lawyer told a federal judge on Wednesday in a landmark civil terror case.
For lawyers taking the Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization to court, financial records of payments to families of convicted terrorists prove their support and complicity in the wave of attacks in the early 2000s, known as the Second Intifada.
But attorneys for the Palestinians have long insisted that the payments reflect a sprawling "social welfare state," where all prisoners and their relatives are provided for by the government.
As another week of trial drew to a close, Palestinian politician Shawqi Issa spoke about his time heading this program as the Minister of Detainee Affairs. He testified that the payments went to prisoners incarcerated for any type of offense, and the amounts varied based on sizes and needs of the affected families.
Issa added that the so-called martyr payments, as they are known for security prisoners, also had a "political reason."
The Palestinian Authority decided it could "not leave these families as a target for a wide range of radical groups," Issa said.
After this testimony ended, U.S. District Judge George Daniels reminded the PA's lawyers that he barred Israeli and Palestinian politics from the trial. But the attorneys responded that the subject could not be avoided.
"Whether we like it or not, the prisoner payments are a political issue," attorney Mark Rochon, of the Washington-based firm Miller & Chevalier, commented.
"It's a war of the minds there that's actually going on right now," he added.
Earlier that day, the defense team asked Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard to describe the Israeli military justice system and the Palestinians in its prisons designated as "security" detainees.
A Palestinian can be designated a "security prisoner" for 51 possible offenses, including non-violent infractions like breaking curfew, organizing an unauthorized protest or belonging to a banned organization, Sfard said.
Data collected between 2004 and 2006 showed that only 1 percent of security prisoners had been charged or convicted of murder, and 4 percent had been charged or convicted of attempted murder, he added.
Those crimes did not differentiate between civilian or military targets, Sfard testified.
Kent Yalowitz, the victims' lawyer from the firm Arnold & Porter LLP, pressed Sfard to agree that most charged with organizing an unauthorized protest, breaking curfew, or belonging to a banned political organization received relatively short sentences.
Sfard noted that most of these statutes held 10-year maximum penalties, but he said he had not personally heard of someone receiving a three-year sentence for any of these.
Yalowitz also asked whether membership in the al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade, which claimed responsibility for multiple attacks, was a "serious" offense.
Sfard agreed that he had told Yalowitz in a pre-trial interview that he believed this group engaged in "crimes against humanity."
Another witness, lawyer and writer Raja Shehadeh, said that his testimony Wednesday fell one day before the publication of his 14th book "Language of War, Language of Peace."
Unlike his literary output, however, his testimony remained brief and confined to his recollections of the destruction of PA security facilities by Israeli army incursions in the West Bank.
Shehadeh, like prior witnesses, was not allowed to talk about the military operations themselves, but only generally about the destruction they wrought on Palestinian property - which the PA now blames for its inability to stop attacks.
An Oct. 12, 2000, operation "completely leveled" a police station, Shehadeh said.
Neither party mentioned the contentious fact that Palestinian police at the station allegedly participated in the lynching of two Israeli reservists on that day, in one of the more gruesome events that marked the beginning of the Second Intifada.
The Israeli army also "heavily destroyed" the headquarters of the Palestinian Preventative Security Services in Betunia, just outside Ramallah, toward the beginning of 2002, Shehadeh added.
"The building was toppled," he said. "The roof was collapsed."
When the jury left the room, Judge Daniels pointedly remarked that the PA's lawyers called no witnesses able to tell the jury that this destruction prevented them from arresting suspects.
But Fatah leader Hussein al-Sheikh, whose testimony had been entered via video deposition, told lawyers that the operations bred political instability.
"There was no stability in the political Palestinian organizations in general," he said. "Different organizations were not working or as active as they used to be before the intifada."
Trial adjourned until Tuesday to mark Lincoln's birthday and President's Day.
The PA and PLO are expected to call their final witnesses when proceedings resume, with closing arguments immediately after.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.