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In Middle East, Al-Arian resolution doesn't resonate

Published May 2, 2006

Since 2000, Palestinian Islamic Jihad has killed scores of Israelis. In the past year it has been responsible for all of the major terror attacks against the Jewish state.

Yet Monday's sentencing of Sami Al-Arian - once described as the organization's North American leader - will rate only a few lines inside today's editions of Haaretz, a leading Israeli paper.

Why so little interest in Al-Arian's case in a country that has suffered so much from Palestinian terrorism?

"We don't find him significant,'' said Shmuel Rosner, Haaretz chief U.S. correspondent.

"Maybe he gave some money to somebody connected to Islamic Jihad. So what? There are many people supporting Islamic Jihad," Rosner said. "The story of Islamic Jihad is the support they get from the government in Damascus Syria, not from some American professor.''

As the Associated Press moved word of Al-Arian's sentencing Monday morning, the online editions of Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post, another Israeli daily, ran brief updates on their Web sites, as did the London-based BBC. Yet it has been clear for several months that a case that generated so much attention in the United States, especially in the Tampa Bay area, has caused few ripples in Israel or other countries.

One reason is that Al-Arian and his three co-defendants went on trial during a period when so much was happening in the Middle East. The trial started last summer, as Israel was preparing for its historic withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and ended as Mideast politics were thrown into turmoil after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered an incapacitating stroke.

And in the weeks before Al-Arian agreed to plead guilty to one charge, Palestinians voters put the radical group Hamas in power; Iran's president vowed to wipe Israel "off the face of the Earth"; and Israeli voters elected a new government with a new prime minister.

Israeli media at times has ''played up the story, just not at the moment, what with all the elections, coalitions, Iran and Hamas news going on,'' Amir Mizroch, the Post's news editor, said in an e-mail Monday.

In announcing Al-Arian's indictment in 2003, then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft called him "North American leader" of one of the world's "most violent terrorist organizations.'' The case was billed a major test of the new Patriot Act and one of the most significant terrorism cases since the Sept. 11 attacks. Al-Arian's "death to Israel'' comments also generated outrage among citizens and supporters of Israel.

However, evidence and testimony at the trial showed that most of Al-Arian's direct dealings with Islamic Jihad occurred before the U.S. government declared it a terrorist organization in January 1995.

"The general feeling among many editors and reporters at the beginning was that this will be the most important case regarding Israel bashing, et cetera,'' Rosner said.

"Then they understood it's more complicated and they lost interest. He was not the arch terrorist sponsor they thought, but just a university professor making some outrageous comments, maybe giving some money to shady groups but not one which you can nail for being a real supporter of real terrorism.''

While calling Al-Arian's views "despicable,'' Rosner wrote in an online column April 18 that the plea deal underscored the weakness of the U.S. government's legal case and will help make Al-Arian a hero to some.

"People like him should only be prosecuted when there is a strong enough case to convict them in a court of law - and, no less important, in the court of public opinion,'' he said.

The Arab media have covered the case somewhat more closely, reflecting a widespread Arab view that Palestinians have been ruthlessly oppressed by Israel and that Al-Arian and his co-defendants were being persecuted for their political beliefs.

After a jury acquitted two of the co-defendants on all charges, the English-language Arab News in Saudi Arabia ran a column contending "too many innocent people who have spoken out against Israel are either in jail or being charged unfairly.

"While we focus on the wrong front, the real terrorists, like Osama bin Laden, remain at large, plotting, planning and waiting for the moment to strike again.''

Susan Martin can be contacted at

[Last modified May 2, 2006, 06:30:18]

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