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Key prisoners at center of Israeli-Hamas negotiations

Among the scores of Palestinian prisoners who Hamas wants freed in exchange for Israeli Sgt. Gilad Shalit is Marwan Barghouti, the most popular man in Fatah.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 19, 2009

Prisoners: Gazans rallied on Monday for the release of Palestinians held by Israel.

Suhaib Salem/Reuters

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Ramallah, West Bank

Israel on Wednesday increased pressure on Hamas to free Gilad Shalit, the soldier held by the Gaza militants, by saying it would not agree to a long-term cease-fire deal, open borders into the coastal strip, or release the 1,000 prisoners that Hamas wants freed until they know he is coming home.

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The Israeli Security Cabinet's stance angered Egyptian mediators and Hamas officials who say a prisoner swap, which appeared imminent, should be a separate issue from truce talks.

The decision may set back negotiations in Cairo and probably postpone the freedom of Palestinian prisoners – one of whom is an unexpected choice among the scores of Hamas inmates: Marwan Barghouti, the most popular man in Fatah.

Mr. Barghouti, arrested by Israel in 2002 at the height of the second intifada, has been consistently chosen in public opinion polls as man most Palestinians think of as their future leader, and the candidate most likely to beat Hamas in the next presidential election.

But why would Hamas work to see Barghouti set free?

Many here say that winning Barghouti's release will help Hamas win points among all Palestinian factions. Internally, this could pave the way to national reconciliation by helping to mend the bitter Fatah-Hamas split. Abroad, it's likely to blur the line between Palestinians who are ready to reach a permanent peace deal with Israel and those who will never be.

"Hamas wants to say, we are not against Fatah as Fatah. We are against the corrupt people and the collaborators, and we want what's best for all the Palestinian people. In this way, Barghouti's release will be very helpful for Hamas's image," says Qaddura Fares, a senior Fatah official, as he sits in a office like so many here, one with a huge picture of Barghouti. In it, Barghouti is wearing a brown Israeli prison uniform and raising victorious-but-shackled wrists – an image that can be seen in every town and village in the West Bank.

Despite the Israeli cabinet decision Wednesday, much progress has been made toward a prisoner exchange following the 22-day war between Israel and Hamas. That war came to an uneasy pause when both sides declared unilateral cease-fires on Jan. 18.

Since then, Israel and Hamas – with the help of Egypt – have been weighing a prisoner exchange, as well as an official truce that would have two important aspects: Israel would open border crossings into Gaza and Hamas would stop firing rockets at Israel.

But Israel now says nothing will happen without the release of Shalit.

Saad Nimr, who runs the campaign for Barghouti's release, says that Hamas officials have promised that Barghouti is at the top of the list for release, along with three other non-Hamas members among the 1,000 to 1,400 names they have presented to Israel.

"Marwan is no longer perceived as a leader in Fatah. He's considered a national leader," says Dr. Nimr. "Hamas realizes this, and they know that any deal to release prisoners that doesn't include him will be seen as totally pointless. The Israelis understand that this is the price they have to pay for Shalit."