How a Top Palestinian Lawyer Devoted to Nonviolent Resistance Became a Terrorist

Tarek Barghout fought the Israeli occupation in court. Now it turns out that he led a double life

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Tarek Barghout during his trial at the military court on the Ofer base, June 2019.
Tarek Barghout during his trial at the military court on the Ofer base, June 2019. Credit: Emil Salman

He was one of the best known of the lawyers who represent Palestinians on trial in Israel. He was completely at home in both civil and military courts. Judges knew him, military prosecutors joked with him, left-wing activists even slightly admired him. He handled dozens of cases, sometimes pro bono; in some instances, according to his friends, he paid for his client’s bail out of his own pocket. He did not let his imperfect Hebrew stop him from defending his clients dramatically in court. Recently he had a leading role in the high-profile documentary film about attorney Lea Tsemel, in which he is seen handling two cases with her. Tarek Barghout was a leading figure in the nonviolent resistance against the Israeli occupation.

But what his colleagues and acquaintances didn’t know is that for the past couple of years Barghout was leading a double life. In the daytime he defended Palestinians in Israeli courts, but at night he perpetrated terrorist acts in the West Bank. At first he operated alone, afterward he joined forces with an individual whose name is more familiar to Israelis: Zakaria Zubeidi, former head of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades in Jenin.

Barghout pursued this way of life for two years. This split existence came to a head when he found himself representing Palestinians who were charged with carrying out an act of terrorism that he himself had perpetrated. How did the lawyer whom clients dubbed the “angel” – a man who went to law school in order to struggle against the occupation nonviolently – become a terrorist?

For their sake

Tarek Barghout, 44, was born into the conflict. An uncle relates that in 1948 the family was expelled from the village of Al-Walaja, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. His grandfather was killed in the war, after which his grandmother wandered about in East Jerusalem selling vegetables in order to provide for her four children. One of them, Tarek’s mother, went on to bear eight children, of whom Tarek was the sixth. Like two of his older brothers and many Palestinian young people, he also spent time in an Israeli prison. He was sentenced to a year’s incarceration for throwing stones and Molotov cocktails and for torching cars during the first intifada. In Tel Mond Prison, he met several people who would become significant figures in his life, among them a Palestinian teen named Zakaria Zubeidi.

During the day he defended Palestinians in Israeli courts, but at night he perpetrated terrorist acts in the West Bank.

According to acquaintances and relatives, his period in prison, together with the Oslo Accords, led Barghout to decide to become a lawyer, with the specific goal of being able to fight the occupation nonviolently. In 1995, he went to Casablanca, Morocco, to study law on a scholarship. Upon returning, he married Amal, a 16-year-old Palestinian girl from Jericho. They have three children, ranging in age from 8 to 16, and they live in Ramallah. Unlike his wife, Barghout holds an Israeli residency permit, as do the children; the family also has a house in Azariya (Bethany), a town that is part of East Jerusalem.

After admission to the bar, Barghout began representing Palestinian detainees and prisoners. In 2008 he also worked in the Palestinian Authority’s Prisoners Affairs Ministry, which represents Palestinians who are mainly charged with security offenses.

“Even though he was a Fatah activist and a PA employee, he was very critical of the corruption in the authority,” says Issa Amro, a Palestinian anti-occupation activist who knew Barghout. “He wrote in Facebook, took part in demonstrations and always acted fearlessly.” Barghout would later tell his interrogators that recently he was suspended from the ministry after discovering that a Palestinian minister had stolen money earmarked for the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, east of Jerusalem, which faces demolition by Israel.

Most of the lawyers who knew Barghout and worked with him – Israelis and Palestinians alike – were loath to be interviewed for this article, preferring not to have their name associated with his. “It’s enough that we have to fight our own battles,” one of them said, adding, “I don’t want to be connected with Tarek now.” An Israeli lawyer who is active in this field agreed to say, under condition of anonymity, “Tarek was a good lawyer. You can see that also in the decisions that were made in the trials he conducted, but above all in the way he argued his cases. Some lawyers don’t know how to argue a case. He knew.”

Like other Palestinian lawyers, Barghout took part in the grinding routine of dealing with the Israeli judicial system. Their work became more difficult in 2014, following the murder of the East Jerusalem teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir. It was then that the “intifada of the knives” began, in which many of the detainees were children and teens. “A dark period of the detention of minors began,” says attorney Farah Bayadsi, who is associated with Defense for Children International/Palestine, which represents Palestinian minors. “An average of 400 children are arrested every year, and in periods of tension that increases to 600 to 700,” she relates. “After the murder [of Abu Khdeir, and other incidents] the numbers were far higher.”

In this period, Barghout was the defense attorney in several cases, some of which left no trace in the Israeli collective memory but resonated in the Palestinian consciousness. There was the case of (then) 14-year-old Issa al-Mouati, for example, who lost a leg after being shot by soldiers during disturbances in Bethlehem in 2015, and of Dima al-Wawi, a 12-year-old girl from Halhul, who was arrested next to an Etzion Bloc settlement in 2016 while carrying a knife.

“Tarek rushed from the hospital to the courtroom and back,” says left-wing activist Tamar Goldschmidt, who frequently attends trials in the military court at Ofer base, northwest of Jerusalem. “In despair, he came up with the idea of establishing a kind of facility or shelter for children, instead of their being sent to jail.”

“I knew during the past two years that he was not all right emotionally. I thought he had problems at home,” recalls Bayadsi, who worked with Barghout. “Looking back, I realize how crazy that period was for all of us, for all the Jewish and Palestinian lawyers who are engaged in this realm.”

Everyone who knows Barghout – from his wife to the Shin Bet security service interrogators – will testify that two cases rattled him especially. The first was the October 2015 case of Ahmad Manasra, from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina: The 13-year-old was convicted on two counts of attempted murder and of being in possession of a knife. He was taken into custody after he accompanied his 15-year-old cousin to Pisgat Ze’ev, a Jewish neighborhood near Beit Hanina, where the cousin stabbed a Jewish child before being shot and killed, in October 2015. The second case was that of Israa Jaabis, a woman in her 20s from Jabal Mukkaber, also in East Jerusalem, who had a history of marital problems and suicide attempts. In October 2015, she detonated a gas canister at a checkpoint and suffered serious facial and hand wounds. Both the boy and the young woman were sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

Barghout not only represented Manasra, he also looked after him during his hospitalization, since his parents were not permitted to visit him. Barghout spoke in shocked terms about the video clip showing the teenager lying on the road, bleeding, while Jewish passersby urged police officers “to stick [a bullet] in his head.” “I am fed up with this filthy media,” Barghout wrote in his Facebook account about the coverage of the trial. “This contaminated and biased media is not conveying what Ahmad told the judge in the courtroom about the agonies he is enduring.”

Manasra received a 12-year sentence (later reduced by the Supreme Court to nine-and-a-half years). On the same day he was sentenced, Israa Jaabis was sent to prison for 11 years.

Barghout found himself representing Palestinians who were charged with carrying out an act of terrorism that he had perpetrated.

“I saw the judges that day in the courtroom, and it didn’t interest them,” Barghout told his interrogators. “The first judge was a racist. I felt that I couldn’t take it any longer. I started to feel that I had to do something.” At one of the hearings in his own case, Barghout caustically sent regards via Haaretz to the district court judges who had passed sentence on his two clients. “I am here because of them,” he explained. “They led me to commit these acts.”

“To say that he carried out the actions because of the tough approach of the court system is quite pathetic,” says Lt. Col. (res.) Maurice Hirsch, former chief military prosecutor in the West Bank, who knows Barghout well. “It’s also not true,” he adds. “There is no tough approach, and I say that painfully. The judges don’t budge right or left from the [stipulated] levels of punishment, and they are fearful of any criticism.”

Barghout’s arrest did not come as a surprise to Hirsch. “In contrast to other Palestinian defense attorneys, the feeling was that Tarek was not only defending his clients but that he identified totally with their acts of terrorism,” he says. “I saw in him passion and genuine support for terrorism. It was expressed in conversations in the corridor, in meetings we held, in the hearings. He absolutely gave backing to actions against Israel.”

Barghout launched his shooting campaign on his own. According to the indictment and the verdict, in October 2016, he received an M-16 rifle with a tripod and scopes, for hiding it in his house. A month later, just days after the Manasra and Jaabis verdicts were handed down, he decided to take action for the first time. After scouting two checkpoints, he set out at 2 A.M. with the rifle, dressed in a cold-weather coverall and a keffiyeh. Positioning himself next to the Olives Checkpoint in East Jerusalem, he fired 13 shots at two police jeeps. Three bullets hit the back of one of the vehicles. Barghout fled from the scene.

Subsequently he carried out three more attacks on his own, two of which the security authorities didn’t know about until his confession. The major one involved shooting at a military post – again, with no injuries or fatalities – near Qalandiyah, between Jerusalem and Ramallah. On the days following the attacks, he appeared in court as though nothing had happened.

In 2018, he decided to involve his old friend and former militia leader Zakaria Zubeidi. According to the verdict, Barghout told Zubeidi how angry he was at the harsh approach of Israel’s judicial system and prison authorities toward Palestinians, and that as a result he had decided to perpetrate shooting attacks against Israeli targets. Information from the interrogation describes how Zubeidi at first tried to get the Tanzim militia to back down from the plan but finally agreed to supply ammunition and to join Barghout. He would state in his interrogation that he only wanted to supervise Barghout’s actions and limit them, based on his experience and his status.

“I told him, ‘Leave off with this story, sell the M-16 and be rid of it,’” Zubeidi said, under questioning. “I was afraid for him, he’s like a brother to me. I had the feeling that he could murder someone… He asked me to organize an attack for him. I kept delaying him and he was always asking me what had been arranged about the attack. One day I was driving with Tarek and he suggested that we shoot at armored buses of settlers, so that on the one hand no one would be hurt and on the other hand, Israel would lose out economically. I understood that the bullets would not penetrate [the buses] and I agreed.”

The indictment claims that in November 2018 the two set out for the first time to perpetrate a joint attack. Barghout chose the location: a site overlooking Highway 446, which runs between the Givat Assaf settler outpost and the nearby veteran settlement of Beit El. “I chose Beit El because it was the first settlement in the West Bank,” he explained in his interrogation.

The two met at 9 P.M. next to Barghout’s home in Ramallah, left their cell phones in his car and drove in Zubeidi’s car. Barghout dismantled the car’s antenna and replaced the license plates with plates from an abandoned Israeli car that he had found. They waited for military vehicles to emerge from Beit El. None appearing, they made do with a substitute: an Egged company bus from No. 140 line, which passed by. Barghout fired 20 rounds at the vehicle; Zubeidi acted as observer. One person in the bus was wounded: the driver, a Palestinian named Naim Matur, who was hit by shrapnel.

Barghout and Zubeidi reprised this method at least twice more. In one instance, near the end of 2018, they drove to the El Bireh area north of Jerusalem, where Barghout had prepared a stakeout in advance. He opened fire on a bus near the Psagot settlement; no one was hurt. In early January 2019, Barghout fired another 20 rounds at a No. 140 bus, this time neat Kafr Aqab, the northernmost Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Zubeidi refused to join in the shooting. Two bullets struck the bus’ windshield and it crashed into an electricity pole. The driver, also a Palestinian, Mustafa Abu Elohah, was lightly wounded.

Barghout and Zubeidi met again in mid-February and tried to change their method of operation, to avoid detection. As they were driving, Barghout searched in his cellphone for information about buses passing next to Beit El, with the intention of attacking them from a different site. That search would serve as key evidence in the case involving him in the future. They found a new spot for an attack, but Barghout was concerned about the number of stray dogs in the area, fearing they would bark and give them away when they opened fire.

On the evening of February 26, the two drove around in Barghout’s car and pondered their next operation. Should they shoot at a bus or target soldiers waiting at a bus stop in the area? Finally, Zubeidi suggested that they go into a building overlooking the Beit El square, outside that settlement, and shoot at soldiers at the bus stop below. Barghout checked out the building but found that it would not serve the purpose. He and Zubeidi decided to meet again later that night and open fire from their old stakeout. But when they got there, they became anxious about a heightened deployment of Israeli troops, who were searching for them. They both went home. Hours later, they were arrested.

The interrogators didn’t believe Barghout and Zubeidi’s claim that killing had not been their intention.

Surprise visit

It turns out that Barghout had been on the Israel Police and Shin Bet radar for some time. He was first detained in 2016, on suspicion of incitement in the wake of a Facebook post, but was released two days later. A few right-wing members of the Israel Bar Association also demanded his suspension on one occasion, because of opinions he expressed in the social media. “I know that they’re out to get me only because I support and assist my detainees,” he said at the time. The intelligence information that tied him to the shooting attacks reached the Shin Bet early this year, along with Zubeidi’s name. According to sources familiar with the details of the interrogation, the Shin Bet even recorded the two planning an attack.

Barghout’s arrest stunned not only those who knew him, but the entire Palestinian public. Many thought the arrest was politically motivated, because of the criticism he had voiced of the PA or rumors concerning his possible political ambitions. Speculations abounded. “I think that everyone who knew Tarek knew the person – he was not one to try to hide himself,” says Farah Bayadsi, the lawyer. “That’s why I was so surprised when I learned of the circumstances of his arrest.”

Barghout and Zubeidi at first denied the suspicions against them. Barghout was also certain that his friend would withstand the pressure and not incriminate him. “He’s like family to me,” he said of Zubeidi in the interrogation, “he is my soul brother.” But the impression of the Shin Bet personnel was that Zubeidi was likely to crack first. And indeed, according to sources knowledgeable about the interrogation, Zubeidi, presented by the Shin Bet with a range of evidence, started to confess.

“In August 2018 I met with Tarek, who told me about the mental pressure to which he was exposed on a daily basis in the courts,” Zubeidi related in his interrogation. “About people who are taken into custody, about the poor condition of the detainees, about the lack of medical care for Israa Jaabis, the children who are brought to court and so on. He said he wanted to carry out at attack against Israelis.”

Barghout was prevented from meeting with a lawyer for more than 30 days, but did not admit to the suspicions against him. “I wonder when you will start beating me,” he said in one of his first interrogations by the Shin Bet. His interrogators used a number ploys. For example, they forced him to watch his wife Amal being questioned – which made him go wild and forced them to tie him up.

“The arrested me two days after he was arrested,” Amal told Haaretz. “They burst in, in the middle of the night, creating a huge disturbance and waking up the children. They tried to pressure me and accused me of knowing what he was planning.”

The turning point came on the night of March 23. “I’ve prepared a surprise for you,” Shin Bet interrogator “Yasmine” had told him a few hours earlier. Barghout was taken to a hill above Beit El, from which he could watch as Zubeidi reenacted their activities for the interrogators.

This is when Barghout broke, sources knowledgeable about the interrogation say. “I can’t believe he did that,” he said over and over to the Shin Bet personnel, and in the end admitted to the charges against him. He talked about his frustration at the judicial system, about how he had been disappointed time and again by the courts in Israel, and said that his constant engagement with terrorist attacks had led him to cross the lines.

In addition to his clients’ stories, he said during his questioning, he was deeply affected by the shooting of two girls, aged 14 and 16, who had stabbed passersby with scissors in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda outdoor market in 2015. One was killed instantly, the other was sentenced to 13 and a half years in prison.

“I saw the injustice,” Barghout said. “I visited the wounded in the hospitals, it was hard. “I would go every day to see Israa Jaabis, who suffered burns over her whole body, and the boy Ahmad who was attacked by a group of settlers alleging that he had tried to perpetrate a stabbing attack.”

Barghout also maintained in his interrogation that neither he nor Zubeidi intended to kill anyone. “We agreed that if no vehicles appeared from the direction of the military base at Beit El, we would shoot at a bus, and we talked about how the bus would be armored. Possibly a bullet might hit someone on the bus, but my intention was to frighten, not to murder. If I had wanted to kill, I would have killed. I would have shot from closer range. The goal was to instill fear into the hearts of the settlers, the soldiers and the security forces, all because of the oppression of the occupation policy.”

The interrogators didn’t believe Barghout and Zubeidi’s claim that killing had not been their intention. “Firing 15 rounds-plus during every incident is not a small thing,” one of them told Haaretz.

Barghout ultimately signed a plea bargain that entailed a prison term of 11 years in return for a confession, and then admitted to the acts imputed to him. But then, in a rare instance, he told the interrogators about three additional cases of shooting that had not been known to the Shin Bet, for fear that they would be discovered in the future. As a result, the prosecution demanded a stiffer sentence, and in the end he was sentenced to a prison term of 13 and a half years. In a conversation with Haaretz at the time of his sentencing, Barghout said he bears no grudge against Zubeidi. “I am not angry at him,” he said in the accused’s dock.

'I have no regrets. I was left with no choice. I did these things because of the crimes of the occupation.'

Tarek Barghout

Avigdor Feldman, Zubeidi’s lawyer, provided this statement: “They threw out a series of accusations against Zubeidi that were totally outdated. At present they are accusing him of charges dating back to 2000, which are familiar and well known, with respect to which arrangements have already been made. All of a sudden, after he spoke out in the media, they arrested him and added a charge related to that lawyer [i.e., Barghout]. My client claims in the clearest possible way, and this is seen in the evidentiary materials, that it was he who tried to stop the lawyer and prevent him from perpetrating acts that could endanger him and other people.”

A glass of beer

Despite the serious accusations he faced, Barghout’s interrogators say, the atmosphere was usually good during the questioning, sometimes even jocular. One interrogators said more than once, “If not for the circumstances, I would have joined him for a beer.”

The impression formed by the Shin Bet was that Barghout had believed he would not be caught. In his perception, as the interrogators saw it, he was something of a superman – a lawyer who frequented the courts during the day, and a terrorist outwitting the Israeli security forces time and again at night. From one attack to the next, he felt that he and Zubeidi were becoming more powerful. “He fell in love with the pose,” a security source says, adding, “I believe that deep within he was disappointed that the attacks didn’t succeed in exacting a [human] price.”

A special buzz ran through the hall in the military court when Barghout arrived for the hearings – this time in an Israel Prisons Service uniform. The judges continued to address him as “Attorney Barghout,” and he was allowed to speak with his family, albeit from a distance. He was represented by his former colleagues, attorneys Lea Tsemel and Mohammed Mahmoud. At one point, a judge remarked that Barghout certainly understood the indictment fully. In the hearings, Barghout huddled with Tsemel time and again, embracing her and caressing her head fondly, in a scene vividly familiar to anyone who has seen “Advocate,” the documentary about her, which was shot when both of them were working lawyers.

Palestinian lawyers flocked to the courtroom and kissed him. According to a security source, the love his professional colleagues heaped on him was partly fake. One wonders, indeed, if they truly supported him or were happy to see him fall. In private conversations, some of them confirmed this impression. “Not everyone liked him,” a Palestinian lawyer says. “Some saw him as a troublemaker and others as threatening their own positions.” In addition, his deeds cast suspicion on an entire community that is already looked on askance by the courts. “What he did is not a patriotic act,” a Palestinian lawyer told Haaretz. “How does it help his wife and children? How does it help his people?”

“Tarek tried to achieve something within a system that is part of the occupation, and didn’t succeed,” Issa Amro observes. “Lawyers who take part in the system are marionettes. They do not foment change. They try to make the families and the prisoners feel better. It’s natural for a lawyer to feel frustrated and to shift from one [form of] struggle to another. I don’t believe in a violent struggle, but Tarek chose a different struggle. He chose his battle and he bears responsibility for it. The central issue is the occupation, not Tarek – a good man who tried to change things.”

His wife, Amal, told Haaretz that, “Yes, I am angry at him. He should have thought ahead and continued with the mission of a lawyer helping prisoners. I am in favor of peace. But it’s hard for me to judge from the outside. He was a witness to oppression day after day, and it’s hard for us to judge his behavior. He should have had psychological treatment. It’s too bad he didn’t. It’s hard for the children. They were used to their father picking them up from school, and suddenly he’s been gone for the past half a year.”

During one of the hearings, Barghout’s mother, Nihad, said, “I am tired and sad.” During a break, she sat on the steps of a trailer at the Ofer base, crying, her head on the shoulder of a granddaughter. “I am too old. I don’t want to wait 13 and a half years to see my son again. I feel that he has been done a terrible injustice, that this whole court is one big injustice and that he is paying a very heavy price.”

“I have nothing against the Israelis and there was no intention of hurting Israelis, only to act against the occupation and its arms,” Barghout told Haaretz. “I have no regrets. I was left with no choice. I know that my family is paying a price, but our whole people is paying the price. I did these things because of the crimes of the occupation, and ultimately the occupation will end.”

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