By Roni Singer and Nathan Guttman, Haaretz
Some 100 survivors of terror attacks, relatives of those killed, police investigators, Magen David Adom paramedics, and ZAKA volunteers will testify in what American authorities regard as the most important terrorist trial in the United States since the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The group will be flown to Tampa, Florida early next month to serve as prosecution witnesses in the trial of four Arab-Americans accused of belonging to Islamic Jihad and raising funds to finance terror attacks, including some that took place in Israel.
The trial is due to start on June 6, with jury selection to begin this week.
The Israeli witnesses, flying to Florida at the expense of the U.S. government, include survivors of terror attacks going back to 1989, as well as relatives of some of those killed, eyewitnesses, doctors from the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir in South Tel Aviv and police officers.
Dozens of boxes of documents in Hebrew are also being flown to the trial, for the prosecutions use.
Among the terror attacks for which the four are being charged are the Bus 405 incident, from 1989, when an Islamic Jihad man forced an Egged bus off the highway and into a ravine on the road to Jerusalem, the 1992 pitchfork attack at a training base, the 1995 double suicide bombings at Beit Lid, the 1996 bombing at the Dizengoff Center, and a terror attack in Karkur in 2002. More than 100 Israelis and Americans were killed in the attacks mentioned in the 118-page indictment.
The Israelis will be asked to testify about their experiences.
The lead defendant in the case is Sami al-Arian, a University of South Florida computer engineering professor who has been held by authorities for the last two years. Also on trial are Sameeh Hammoudeh, Hatim Naji Fsariz and Ghassan Zayed Ballut.
The indictment also names non-U.S. citizens who are absent from the U.S. and therefore not being charged. Most prominent of these is Ramadan Salah, a friend and partner of Al-Arian and the head of Islamic Jihad, who lives in Damascus. Also named in the indictment are known Islamic Jihad leaders from Gaza, London, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
There are more than 50 individual charges being leveled against the four defendants, including running an organized crime ring, membership in a criminal organization and financing terror. They are also accused of murder, money laundering, conspiracy and extortion.
The FBI investigation against the four has gone on for some 10 years, both inside the U.S. and abroad. Much of the evidence was gathered via electronic surveillance and wiretaps, a result of close cooperation between U.S. and foreign police, including the Israel Police.
In Israel, investigators from the International Crimes Unit worked on the case. Although there is no gag order, police have refused to divulge anything about the case to the press as the trial has approached. Furthermore, the U.S. authorities will likely play down the role of the Israeli authorities in gathering the material on which they are basing their case.
However, the Americans do want to make the jury understand not only how the four defendants helped finance terror, but also what terror looks like. It is for this purpose they are bringing in the Israeli witnesses. They also plan to play videotapes of news footage shot at terror scenes, display material from the forensic institute and present testimony from both survivors and the ZAKA volunteers who collect the tiny bits of human remains that are often left by a bombing.
The prosecution is planning to present examples of correspondence between the four defendants and others raising money for the families of terrorists. Al-Arian is accused of heading a large-scale fund-raising operation inside the U.S. starting in the early 1990s.
The trial was supposed to begin this week, but it was postponed until June because of a defense request for a change in venue. While the prosecution plans to focus on the work the four did to help Islamic Jihad, the defense is planning to argue that Islamic Jihad is a legitimate resistance group – an argument that might not pass muster with the judge in the case since not only has the U.S. listed Islamic Jihad as a terror group since the 1980s, but the judge has announced he does not plan to allow the case to become a lesson in the history of the Middle East conflict.
Nonetheless, the defense has asked controversial University of Haifa lecturer Ilan Pappe to appear as an expert witness. Pappe says he has not decided whether to appear in the trial on the defenses behalf.
The defense also plans to show the jury photographs and other documentation to show that Arian was a well-known Arab-American politician, friendly with major U.S. political figures such as former U.S. president Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush. If the FBI suspected the defendants of being terrorists, the defense will ask, why didnt they warn the political figures to stay away from Arian and the others?