The five members of the Islamic Movement, including its northern faction leader Shaikh Rayd Salah and a former mayor of the Israeli-Arab town of Um al-Fahm, were arrested in May 2003 for allegedly "helping a terrorist organisation", a reference to the Palestinian resistance group Hamas.

Ilyas Karram, Aljazeera's correspondent in Haifa, reports that after long negotiations all security-offence charges against the five were dropped, leaving only the charges relating to delivering humanitarian assistance to Palestinian families in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

As per the plea-bargain agreement, three of the men are due to be released shortly, Salah within six months and the fifth defendant in a year's time, Karram said.

Religious duty

The Islamic Movement, founded in the 1970s, is represented by two MPs in the Israeli parliament and controls five town councils. It is made up of two factions, a northern one led by Salah and a more moderate southern branch, led by founder Shaikh Abd Allah Nimr Darwish.

Throughout the trial, the northern faction insisted it was merely supporting the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories as a religious duty by assisting orphans and the poor.

The trial heard testimony from
many Islamic and Jewish leaders

The Israeli state prosecutor had argued that the Islamic Movement's activities amounted to "aiding terrorism" and the families of Palestinian fighters killed when carrying out attacks against Israel.

The act of helping Palestinians, even with humanitarian relief, strengthened the collective Palestinian capacity for resistance and alleviated the pressure on "Hamas' financial resources", according to the prosecutor.

'Deceitful manner'

Confirming on Wednesday that his client had agreed to the plea bargain, Salah's lawyer Mahmud Abu Husayn said: "Salah understood that Israel is not the place to seek justice for non-Jews".

He said the Israeli state dealt deceitfully with Salah and his colleagues in the Islamic Movement.

"The Israeli state declared charity societies in the West Bank illegal retroactively. They claimed that these charities belonged to Hamas," Abu Husayn said.

"[The charities] function under the strict supervision of the Palestinian Authority and all their records are meticulously examined by certified public accountants"

Mahmud Abu Husayn,
lawyer for the defendants

"The truth of the matter is that they function under the strict supervision of the Palestinian Authority and all their records are meticulously examined by certified public accountants." 
 
Taufiq Ayrir, editor of the Islamic Movement weekly newspaper, Sawt al Haq wal-Hurriya (Voice of Truth and Freedom), called the dropping of the security-offence charges an indictment of the Israeli justice system.
 
"We can say the mountain went into labour and gave birth to a rat," Ayrir said on Wednesday, quoting an Arab saying.

'Fabricated charges'

Salah and the other detainees now face lesser charges such as maintaining contact with a foreign agent; rendering a service on behalf of an illegal organisation; possession of funds belonging to an illegal organisation; and making use of prohibited property.

The Israeli court is not bound by the plea bargain between the state prosecutor and the defendants. However, in most cases it abides by the agreement.

Salah, in an earlier interview with Aljazeera.net, had described the charges as "fabricated, tendentious and void of truth".

"They are persecuting us for helping needy Palestinian families," he said. "They seem to think that impoverishing and starving women and children in the West Bank and Gaza serves Israeli security goals".