One day when she was 16, Gisèle Halimi decided to test God. Brought up in an observant Jewish home in Tunisia, where her grandfather was a rabbi, she had been made to believe that only if she prayed for God’s blessing and observed his laws would he grant her success in
Sixty years on, she still gets by without God. Elegant, poised and defiant, this celebrated lawyer, prolific writer and champion of women’s causes remains an irredeemable iconoclast who continues to challenge authority with the conviction and tenacity of a rebel.
Parisian lawyer Gisèle Halimi is a Jewish lawyer representing Marwan Barghouti, leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the Palestinian militant group that has killed and maimed an estimated 200 soldiers and civilians. Barghouti, 43, is the highest-profile Palestinian to be tried by Israel. Once considered a likely successor to Yasser Arafat, he was seen as a moderate Palestinian and a supporter of the peace process. He speaks Hebrew fluently and was involved in a number of initiatives between Israelis and Palestinians following the Oslo peace accord. Which is why many Israelis were astonished at his transformation into a radical.
For 19 months, Barghouti managed to avoid arrest and an assassination attempt by Israel’s security services. Then, in April last year, he was caught in a raid on a house in Ramallah and charged with leading and conducting suicide attacks on Israeli targets; pre-meditated murder, abetting murder, soliciting murder, attempted murder, conspiring to commit crimes, activity in a terrorist organisation, and belonging to a terrorist organisation.
Halimi, who has met him twice recently in Israel, says: “He is an intellectual, a political leader and a humanist. He is someone who suffers from the situation in his country. He would condemn all terrorism against Israel as soon as Israel ends its occupation of Palestine.”
Those familiar with Halimi’s professional trajectory will not be surprised at this alliance between a rabbi’s granddaughter and a Palestinian militant. In the 1960s she acted as counsel for the Algerian National Liberation Front and represented Algerian militants seeking to end French rule; in Spain she pleaded for Basque separatists; and she fought the corner of four leftwing militants who had acted to overthrow the government of President Marien N’Gouabi in the Congo.
In 1967, she presided over the Russell Tribunal which investigated American crimes in Vietnam, and two years later, with Simone de Beauvoir, she founded Choisir, a body that defended the 343 French women who had publicly admitted to having illegal abortions.
“I condemn terrorism when it hits innocent people,” she says. “But there are innocent victims for the best causes in the world. In Algiers, in Dresden… in Israel, too, before its creation, there was terrorism. It’s important to ask the right questions. You say: ‘Why terrorism?’ I say: ‘Why occupation?’ As long as there is occupation contrary to international law, you can expect terrorism. Once there is an end to the occupation, not only will I condemn it, but there will be no terrorism.”
In numerous public statements Barghouti has claimed that his trial was staged purely for political reasons. Halimi agrees: “Generally speaking I think the Israeli internal system is democratic. But from an international law viewpoint, Israel is an outlaw. The main question is: does the Israeli court have the right to judge Barghouti? I say no; the Israeli civilian tribunal is not competent to judge him.”
“As a lawyer, Halimi has every right to defend what she considers a just cause,” says Marc Knobel from the highest official Jewish institution in France, the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France. “All the same, we feel that she tends to totally exonerate the Palestinian Authority from its own responsibilities and faults, and, at the same time, all too easily vilify Israel.”
Indeed, in more than an hour of conversation, Halimi does not mention Palestinian terrorism, or pass any judgment on Palestinian corruption, incitement or duplicity.