A precedent-setting US court decision paving the way for the extradition of a Palestinian to Israel has been virtually ignored by the US press. But it nets headlines almost daily in Jordan and other Arab countries.
The man at the center of the controversy is 20-year-old West Bank resident Ziad Abu Ein. Mr. Abu Ein has been held in a Chicago jail without bail since August 1979. Israel has charged him with planting a bomb which killed two children in a crowded Tiberias marketplace.
Abu Ein claims that the two Palestinians who signed confessions incriminating him while held in Israeli prisons in connection with the same incident have since retracted their statements. He also claims to have 14 witnesses who can verify that he was miles away at the time of the bombing.
Yet two levels of US courts now have recommended his extradition to Israel for trial on that government's charges. Though the 1962 extradition treaty between this country and Israel contains the usual exemption for crimes of a political nature, the federal courts in this case effectively are breaking new legal ground by tightening the definition to exclude what the judges view as the "indiscriminate bombing of civilians."
In essence, the court agreed with State Department testimony in the case that such violence is not political but a "common crime" of murder, punishable under both US and Israeli law.
Neither the retracted confessions nor Abu Ein's documented assertion that he was elsewhere at the time of the incident was admitted as evidence in the extradition hearings. The court reasoned that such testimony contradicts rather than explains the Israeli charges and as such is appropriate only in the criminal trial itself.
Abdeen Jabara of Detroit, one of the attorneys representing the jailed Palestinian, terms the Feb. 20 appeals court opinion "almost totally political" and "absolutely shocking" from the standpoint of both law and fact.
"The court is essentially taking sides in this conflict, letting personal value judgments and political views [affect the outcome]," he suggests. "It completely ignored some testimony, misconstrued some law, and allowed the flimsiest of evidence to support the case for extradition."
Former South Dakota Sen. James Abourezk, founder and chairman of the American Arab Antidiscrimination Committee, agrees. Abu Ein, he says, is "not getting a fair shake. The only reason he's being treated like this is because he's a Palestinian. That's currently an unpopular ethnic group."
What particularly riles many of Abu Ein's supporters is what they see as unwarranted State Department interference in the case, including both written and oral testimony.
"The State Department really is the culprit -- they more or less pressured the court, telling the judges that terrorism was really on trial and the court wasn't of sufficient independence to buck that," Mr. Jabara insists.
Countering that "in no earthly way did we pressure the courts," a State Department source notes that the department's position is consistent with its policy of the last 20 years in trying to suppress "terrorism" by every legal means possible.
One key concern of many watching this case is whether Abu Ein, indicted by a civilian court in Tel Aviv which could not impose the death sentence, can really be assured of receiving a fair trial in Israel. The defendant, who says he is convinced that only torture and an unfair trial lie ahead, launched a one-week hunger strike after the latest court decision.
There are three possible legal avenues still open to Abu Ein. His attorneys are filing a petition this week for an "en banc" reconsideration of the case by all the judges in the Seventh Circuit Court district.
An appeal to the US Supreme Court is possible. But the final political decision on extradition rests with US Secretary of State Alexander M. Hai g Jr.