Sami Esmail, a Brooklyn-born American citizen of Palestinian descent, was convicted yesterday in an Israeli court of belonging to an extremeist Palestinian organization that he joined on the campus of Michigan State University.
Esmail, 24, was arrested last December at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion airport while on his way to visit his dying father in the Israel-occupied West bank and accused of undergoing terrorist training in Libya during a visit there in the summer of 1976.
He could receive a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison at his sentencing next Monday. But the prosecution indicated in court yesterday that mitigating circumstances would probably result in a lighter sentence.
The Tel Aviv court acquited Esmail of a charge of having contact with an enemy agent, in this case the Popular Fron for the Liberation of Palestine, which he is accused of joining while an electrical engineering student in Michigan.
Although the case contained elements common in the long-standing civil liberties controversy between the government and Israel's left, Israelis for the most part have reacted with ambivalance to the infrequent press accounts about the trial and to Esmail's lawyer's attempts to generate public interest in it.
In general, Israelis are far more concerned about civil liberties cases involving Israeli Arabs or those living on the occupied West Bank. The basic source of the ongoing dispute between the government and Israeli civil libertarians is the issue of how to preserve democratic procedures and at the same time meet security requirements of a state surrounded by hostile neighbors.
Under Israeli security law, persons can be tried for offenses committed against Israel in other countries.
Esmail is the second American citizen imprisoned recently by Israeli authorities for alleged subversive activities, and his case attracted wide-spread attention in the United States as a result.
Terry Fleener, a 23-year-old American woman, pleaded guilty last January to charges of conveying information to the enemy, and rendering service to illegal organizations.
She is serving a five-year sentence in an Israel prison.
In pleading for a light sentence, defense attorney Felicia Langer argued that in military courts, where most security cases are prosecuted, prison sentences for similar crimes are usually gauged in months.
U.S. consular officials noted that Fleener's sentence had taken into account her conviction for contacting a Lebanese guerrilla group. Prosecutor Sara Sirota also noted that it had not been shown in court that Esmail came to Israel to cause damage.
After the verdict was read, Esmail declared, "I am innocent of the charge. My only crime is political solidarity of the homeless Palestinians and other people and I don't know how it could harm anybody."
Langer said acquital of the charge of contacting the enemy, which carries a 15-year term, "minimized the case. "It was ridiculous to convict him of anything. The main issue was the trip to Lily, so what is left?"
Civil liberties controversies here usually involve the authorities' treatment of Israeli Arabs or Palestinians living in the occupied territories, and they are often followed closely in the Hebrew press.
However, the Esmail case attracted less attention than that of Raymonda Tawil, an activist on the West Bank political scene, who was kept in custody for six weeks and finally released May 7 without ever being charged formally.
Tawil, who was arrested on suspicion of subversive activity, maintained that her political activity - mainly through contacts with the international press - was legal under Israeli law.
Surpassing that case in intensity of emotions way the controversial "Koenig Report," a confidential memorandum by an interior department district officer in Galilee that asserted that Arabs in Israel's northern region were becoming too numerous.The report, which was bitterly criticized by Israeli Arabs and liberal Jews alike, recommended measures to limit the Arabs' population growth to prevent them from becoming a threat to the state.
Palestinian human rights activists, however, were able to generate considerable American support for Esmail, principally in the American Arab community and among Esmail's professors and classmates at Michigan State university.
At one point, Sen. James Abourezk (D-S.D.) threatened to filibuster a Justice Department confirmation vote until he received answers at the FBI's role in the case, and the City Council of Detroit, which has a large Arab population, passed a resolution in support of Esmail. The FBI acknowledged sending some information about Esmail to Israeli Authorities.
Langer recently made a trip to the United States on Esmail's behalf, conducting press conferences and attemtpting to generate support for what she termed systematic abuse of Esmail's rights by Israeli authorities.
However, law professors Monroe Freedman of Hofsta and Alan Dershowitz of Harvard visited Israel to study the case and concluded in a report that many of Langer's allegations were unfounded, including the claim that Esmail had been tortured and held incommunicado.
They noted that Esmail and Langer themselves conceded that the defendant in fact went to Libya in August, 1976, despite his claims that he had been in Ohio that month. Also, the two professors reported that Esmail admitted he was visited by U.S. consular officials and two brothers two days before he signed a confession, and that he had been a confession, and that he had been punched once "not very hard" in the chest.
Even the liberal Hebrew press ignored many of those claims, and in an editorial the English-language Jerusalem Post yesterday took note of the Freedman-Dershowitz report and concluded "a fuller vindication of Israels system of justice . . . would be hard to imagine."
Israeli human rights activists interviewed here expressed sympathy for Esmail's plight, but said that it pales in comparison with what occurs almost daily to Palestinians on the West Bank.
Its typical of what happens all the time to local residents, but they don't have U. S. citizenship and don't get the attention in America that Esmail did," said one Palestinian human rights activist.
A foreign consular official who closely follows West Bank affairs said the Esmail sentencing probably would have little impact on the day-to-day affairs of the Arabs there."It strikes people of the West Bank as being nothing out of the ordinary. They have their own problems. They have relatives who are hauled in every day and given the same kind of treatment, so it seems to them routine", the official said.
He added that West Bank Palestinians have expressed sympathy because Esmail's father was dying at the time of the arrest, but then he noted that last month an Arab father and son were imprisoned and that the father died in jail.
Pinina Lehav, an activist in the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, observed the irony that Esmail was charged under a law whose origin was under the British mandate of Palestine and was designed to counteract political activity by members of the Irgun and other Jewish underground groups.
"This law is not fit for a democratic state. Sympathy for the Plo is one thing. Helping it is another. If they felt he was conspiring to do something, they should have proved it," she said.
Civil libertarians pointed out that Israel's supreme court ruled recently that the government may choose whether to prosecute such cases either under the security statute or the state defense law. The latter law is more rigid in terms of introducing evidence material, they said.
Human rights activists also noted that despite the Freedman-Dershowitz report concluding that Israel's legal system is "one of the most highly civilized and refined in the world," a three-member U.N. Security Council panel last November accused Israel of torturing detainees, overcrowding its prisons and abusing prisoners.