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Prisoner swap: Marwan for Gilad?

The fate of Marwan Barghouthi and Cpl. Gilad Shalit could factor into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations before a Middle East peace conference scheduled for next month.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 15, 2007

Ramallah, West Bank

More than 11,000 Palestinian prisoners are in Israeli jails. One Israeli soldier, captured 16 months ago, is being held by Palestinians in Gaza.

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Behind the new push for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation are reports of talks about a possible controversial trade-off that could see the release of two of those prisoners. Such a deal could buy goodwill from both sides as negotiations heat up before a Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md., scheduled for late November.

That swap could look like this: In exchange for Cpl. Gilad Shalit, nabbed by Hamas in June 2006, Israel would free a significant number of prisoners, possibly including Marwan Barghouthi, a Fatah leader arrested by Israel more than five years ago and convicted on five counts of murder and one of attempted murder.

Officially, Israel says its policy is that it will not release Palestinians "with blood on their hands." Prosecutors in Mr. Barghouthi's trial charged that he ordered attacks on Israelis during the height of the intifada, which started in September 2000.

The possibility of such a release does not exactly conjure up talk of reconciliation and understanding. Rather, it's a window into the machinations behind Palestinian politics and it provides a glimpse into why, even as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Jerusalem Sunday to meet with Israelis and Palestinians ahead of the November conference, internal rivalries are an inexhaustible source of complication.

Barghouthi's wife, Fadwa, says Israel's reasoning – that he has "blood on his hands" – for keeping her husband in jail is "propaganda." "Even if we have blood on our hands, don't their soldiers also have blood on their hands? That's what a prisoner exchange is supposed to be: recognizing that we've both hurt each other."

In opinion polls, Barghouthi is one of the most well-liked Palestinian leaders. Even from jail, he's mediated several disputes between Hamas and Fatah. But his relative youth, popularity, and street credibility make him a potential threat to Palestinians in power.

From interviews with analysts to conversations with young Palestinians walking the street-side markets readying for the holiday of Eid il-Fitr, which began over the weekend, it is clear that if Barghouthi were released, he'd be the preferred leader of the Palestinians – and much better liked than President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) or Ahmed Qorei (Abu Ala), who heads the current negotiations with Israel to try to reach a new declaration of principles before the meeting in Maryland.

"All the people have trust in Barghouthi. He's achieved a lot and spent a lot of years in jail for the Palestinian cause," says Rana Tawil, a university student. "There's no trust in Abu Mazen. He's done nothing new for people. No one believes in this old generation of leaders anymore."

If Barghouthi gives the old generation of Fatah leaders something to worry about, then one would imagine that Hamas – which wrested control of Gaza in June – would be even less interested in seeing Barghouthi released. But Hamas insists that it has included Barghouthi on their list of prisoners whose release they are demanding.