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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.

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"He's a Palestinian patriot and he's respected by Hamas," says Fawzi Barhoum, the spokesman of Hamas in Gaza. "He's one of the those who support the resistance option and he's paying the price in prison. I would include him because he calls for the national unity between Fatah and Hamas."

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Indeed, "there are some Palestinians who are against Marwan's release," confirms Ziad Abu Ein, the deputy minister of Prisoner Affairs. Despite the fear of the mass appeal he could have if he were to rejoin the Palestinian political fray, he says, Hamas is being forced by domestic pressure to act in favor of Barghouthi's release.

"Hamas has no choice in this," Mr. Abu Ein says, "because if they don't include Marwan on their list, people in the street will be angry."

Bassam Zubeidy, a political analyst at Birzeit University in Ramallah, worries that Palestinians put too much stock in Barghouthi. "He will be able to bring a sense of hope, but Fatah is still too weak, too fragmented, and has been deeply humiliated by the events in Gaza.... Fatah is still dominated by the old guard, so it's not going to be an easy journey for him politically."

Barghouthi supports the upcoming summit, initiated by the Bush administration, as long as it brings "an end to the occupation," according to Arab-Israeli Knesset member Nadia Hilou, who visited him in jail last week.

Ms. Hilou, a member of the left-wing Labor party, said that Barghouthi supports a prisoner-exchange deal and that would involve the release of Israel's Corporal Shalit in return for the release of 350 Palestinian prisoners, including himself.

The contentious declaration of principles that Ms. Rice is trying to get Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to work out ahead of next month's summit would have to include some substantive agreements. Among those bandied about is the concept of a land swap, in which the Palestinians would forfeit their claim to West Bank land on which Israel has built the three largest settlements in exchange for a comparable piece of land elsewhere.

The question of releasing prisoners is a sore point in Israel.

Some think that anyone who caused the deaths of innocent Israeli civilians should not be eligible for release, while others say that Israel must consider a substantial prisoner release if it wants its captured soldiers back.

In a related development Sunday, Asharq Al-Awsat, a respected Arabic newspaper in London, reported that the two Israeli soldiers captured by Hizbullah in 2006 have been handed over to Iran, but could be freed in a German-brokered swap.

Shalit's father, Noam Shalit, supports an exchange. But he says he's not so sure Hamas has Barghouthi on its list and that he's hardly the prisoner Israel would have the hardest time freeing. "There are names of Hamas people that are much harder demands for Israel than Barghouthi, who is more or less a political leader ... I regard Barghouthi as a Palestinian leader who switched from the path of terror to a peace path."

• Sawfat al-Kahlout in Gaza contributed to this report

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