Under glare of media spotlight, trial of alleged Jewish terrorists tests Israeli court

The trial of more than 20 alleged Jewish terrorists is shaping up as a major test for Israel's traditionally feisty judiciary. Politically, meanwhile, the terrorism controversy may lose some of its potency in the short run amid strong signs the trial will get under way in earnest only after next month's national elections.

Pretrial proceedings continued Monday in a cramped, second-floor room of the Jerusalem District Courthouse in the predominantly Arab eastern part of the city. Outside, shopkeepers, school kids, and foreign tourists went about business as usual.

Inside, the eight defendants directly affected by the latest pretrial issue - whether suspects should be held in custody throughout the trial process - sat impassively near their black-robed attorneys and tan-uniformed police guards.

But prosecution sources said it now seemed very likely the trial proper would begin only after the court's normal July-August summer recess.

One Justice Ministry official explained that the prosecution had no objection in principle to a defense motion to delay the proceedings. The only sticking point, he said, was that prosecution attorneys wanted it understood such a delay would be ''technical'' - to facilitate, for instance, more thorough legal preparations - and not in acceptance of a defense contention that adverse pretrial publicity made a fair trial impossible at present.

The issue of media coverage of the suspects since they were rounded up this spring is one major focus of pressure on the three-judge panel that will preside over the main trial.

Never in Israeli history has any judicial proceeding, with the exception of the judgment of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, attracted so much home and international attention as this one.

The defendants are, variously, charged with involvement in a series of attacks or planned attacks on Palestinians. The assaults include the car-bomb maiming of two West Bank mayors in 1980, a grenade and machine-gun raid on an Islamic university in 1983, and a foiled attempt earlier this year to trigger explosions on five civilian Arab buses. Other defendants are charged in connection with a recent attempt to blow up the Dome of the Rock, on the edge of Jerusalem's old walled town and one of Islam's holiest shrines.

The run-up to the trial has drawn an ideological battle line between an apparent Israeli majority that is shocked by the so-called ''Jewish underground'' and those Israelis, including at least one government minister, who have expressed feelings ranging from understanding to support for the terrorist strikes.

Senior ministers, like Premier Yitzhak Shamir and Defense Minister Moshe Arens, have stressed their condemnation of the anti-Arab terrorism. But from both sides of the ideological divide, pressure has been growing on a judiciary that has proved independent in the past.

From the anti-underground camp have come demands that Israel treat the Jewish terrorism suspects no more leniently than it would Arab terrorism defendants.

Often, the demands are paired with questions over pretrial discrepancies on that score. When an Arab suspect is caught, Israeli authorities in the occupied West Bank either seal or blow up his house. Sometimes the suspect's community is placed under curfew. His name is made a matter of public record.

With the Jewish suspects, mostly from West Bank settlements, none of this has occurred. Most of the defendants' names were withheld for weeks amid their attorneys' protests that the release of their names could trigger Arab reprisals against their families. But after Monday's hearing, the names were made public.

Defense Minister Arens, queried recently on these points by an Israeli journalist, said the discrepancies were due to the fact that while Israeli law applies to Jewish settlers on the West Bank, it does not apply to Palestinians in the area. Foes of Jewish settlement on the West Bank have long argued that applying Israeli law to settlers is unfair, and amounts to a step toward annexation of the area.

Other officials, however, have stressed that on most points, the authorities have treated the Jewish suspects anything but leniently: barring them for a time from seeing attorneys, keeping them in custody despite supporters' pressure for pretrial bail, and plea bargaining with ''small fish'' in order to strengthen the state's case against those accused of murder or attempted murder.

From the defendants' sympathizers, meanwhile, has come at least implicit pressure for the authorities to take account of avowedly mitigating circumstances in the terrorism campaign.

Among those mentioned are the allegation that Jewish West Bank settlers were provided with insufficient government protection against acts of violence by Arabs and the fact that at least two of the victims, the Palestinian mayors, were prominent members of a West Bank ''national guidance council'' outspoken against Jewish settlement and supportive of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In one pretrial hearing, a defense lawyer exhorted a judge to remember he was a Jew presiding over an Israeli court, not someone sitting on the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Above all, the suspects' backers contend that the huge volume of largely negative news reports and official leaks in the run-up to the trial prejudice the judges.

In the midst of this storm sit three career justices - ''not a jury, so thus professionally trained to be impervious to publicity,'' a Justice Ministry official argues.

He and other officials are keenly aware that millions of eyes, Israeli and foreign, will be watching how those judges perform in the months ahead. This is particularly true of the senior judge, who has sons living in West Bank settlements.

But prosecution sources say they're fully confident that he and his colleagues will shrug off all outside pressures and, as Justice Ministry spokesman Yitzhak Feinberg put it Monday, ''rule only on the facts and the legal issues.''

''Obviously, as in any such proceeding, someone is going to be unhappy with the outcome . . . .''

Yet another ministry official, speaking privately, expressed the hope and confidence that the ultimate result of the trial will be to reinforce confidence at home and abroad in the ''objectivity of the Israeli judiciary.''

''In the short run,'' he said, ''the issue of the terrorists is obviously not good for Israel's image. But as the trial runs its course, I think the opposite will prove true.''

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