Trial of Israeli Jews accused of terrorism reopens to public

The trial of 20 Israeli Jews, charged with planning or committing attacks on Arabs in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, opened to the public this week for the first time in more than a month.

The three judges presiding over the trial had closed it to the press and public while testimony was heard from Israeli security officers.

But this week, onlookers were allowed back into the Jerusalem courtoom where a hall was converted to accommodate the defendants, their lawyers, the team of three state prosecutors, and the curious.

A total of 25 Jewish West Bank settlers were arrested last spring after General Security Service agents foiled a plan to blow up five Arab buses. Shortly after the arrests, Israeli officials revealed that agents had penetrated what was termed the ''Jewish terror underground'' as early as 1980. Many of those arrested were deeply religious men who said they believed they had a moral obligation to fight Arab terror with Jewish terror.

News of the organization's existence rocked Israel, where a heated debate immediately began over how to deal with Jewish terrorism.

Israel has been faced with Arab terrorism since the state was founded, and the government has always been unequivocal in its response. Raids on Israel from outside its borders have been met with retaliation. Terrorists captured within Israel have received harsh prison sentences.

But many in the Jewish state, including some members of the Likud government that was in power last spring, were unsure how to respond to Jewish terrorists.

Members of parliament signed a petition supporting the settlers, American rabbis raised funds for the defense, Cabinet ministers issued statements that were thought to be sympathetic to the settlers' motives, if not their acts. But at the same time, a large segment of Israeli society condemned the acts of the accused settlers.

When Haim Bar-Lev becamse minister of police this fall, he condemned all terrorism and moved to end preferential treatment given the settlers while they were held in prison. While the settlers' supporters protested that the settlers should receive such privileges as being released to celebrate Jewish holidays with their families, Mr. Bar Lev said they should be treated like other prisoners.

''There was a little bit of leniency in the courtroom at first, because people argued that this kind of prisoner is not going to run away,'' said Yitzhak Feinberg, Justice Ministry spokesman. ''So if a man wanted to go outside the courtroom to see his wife, he could, where normally it would never be allowed.'' Mr. Feinberg said that practice, and other privileges, have now been eliminated.

Five of those arrested last April have already been convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 18 months to 10 years. But the trial of most of the defendants has dragged on since Sept. 20.

The remaining defendants are accused of crimes ranging from premeditated murder, which is punishable by life imprisonment, to stealing Army property.

Feinberg said it is impossible to tell how long the trial will last. Already, there has been a trial-within-a-trial in which the judges reviewed the methods used by security officers to obtain confessions from the settlers. The state has won some points: Last month, for example, the Supreme Court ruled there was no evidence that the agents had prior knowledge of acts before they were committed.

Shortly after the settlers were arrested, there was much speculation about the possibility that the Likud government would pardon the settlers if they were convicted. The new Labor-led government has made it clear that it would not consider such an action.

But sympathy for the defendants still exists here, and the fragile coalition government will have to tread carefully as the trial and sentencing procede.

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