The fact that the trial was conducted by a military court is of no small importance. As I mention with nauseating frequency, an understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict is impossible without a fundamental grasp of the conditions under which they live. In addition to facing daily curfews, ruinous travel restrictions, economic discrimination, human rights abuses, and an inability to vote in national elections, the Palestinian people are not subject to the civil laws of the country in which they live. Since they are not Israeli citizens, they are not allowed the legal protections of Israeli law, and are thus subject to a nebulous structure of quasi-legitimate legislative jurisdiction.
In civil matters, they are under the aegis of the Palestinian Authority; but since that organization has no legitimate enforcement powers, let alone the gravitas of an authentic state, it's no wonder that Palestinian areas exist in a condition of near anarchy. In criminal matters -- or, more precisely, in criminal matters involving Israel -- they are, as a matter of course, arrested, tried and judged by the Israeli military.
Is Nabil Okal innocent? I have no idea. The fact that the military has failed to disclose if he actually succeeded in recruiting anyone for his "sleeper cells", let alone whether he, or anyone affiliated with him, ever carried out any attacks against Israel, would suggest that, if nothing else, the case against him is a bit shallow. It doesn't bear up to logic either; why would he need to learn bomb-making from al-Q'aeda? The Palestinians have proven quite adept at bomb-making on their own. Alas, we'll never know; the evidence against him, as is often the case in military trials, was secret. He'll spend close to as much time in jail as he has been alive based on evidence that neither he, his defense, nor your or I will ever see.
Why do I find this case so fascinating? Well, in part because it confirms my suspicions about Israel: that our "best friend in the middle east" is a propped-up oligarchy that practices a form of discrimination against its people that is indistinguishable from apartheid. Of course, in a world where a sixteen-year-old girl is deemed an anti-Semitic monster for daring to portray Israel in a less-than-flattering light, it's wise not to pursue this point too far. But even for the most dedicated neoconservative ideologues, it's hard to avoid the contradiction inherent in claiming that the sinister Levant hates democracy, when Israel seems none too enamored of it herself.
But perhaps more importantly, this could be our future. I am loath to engage in alarmism; we may be closer to fascism than we were this time two years ago, but the slope isn't as slippery as the guys with the ski hats and George Bush marionettes would have us think. On the other hand, the foundation has been laid. The USA Patriot Act represents the single biggest incursion into civil rights since those rights were won; executive decisions regarding military tribunals, prisoners of war and the use of secret evidence have placed us on an equal footing with the kind of countries we like to mention when we're painting worst case scenarios. The government has already detained hundreds -- HUNDREDS -- of people, some of them American citizens, and is holding them without trial, without charge, without access to an attorney. And anyone who does not believe that the Bush administration will use the flimsy case against Nabil Okal as "proof" that al-Q'aeda has infiltrated the borders of our democractic friend Israel hasn't been paying very close attention.
In the end, Okal is pretty fortunate. Usually, in cases like his, the government of Israel does not waste time and money on a trial; they simply wait until the accused is out in public and pitch a helicopter-launched rocket at him, and anyone who happens to be nearby when he meets Allah must be considered an acceptable loss. I don't know what you call that, exactly; the Israelis call it "removal"; some call it "assassination"; "terrorism", I think, would be a better word for it if we didn't reserve it for people without state power backing them up. I certainly don't call it "democracy". And as long as we hope to stay a democracy, we should steadfastly avoid following the example of Israel in matters of law.