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.
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Shalit was abducted by Hamas militants in a cross-border attack in June 2006 in which Hamas militants tunneled into Israel.Skip to next paragraph
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Like Yasser Arafat before him, Palestinians here say that Barghouti is an unassailable symbol of the struggle, holding a status that few others do. From extremely humble beginnings – he was born in a cave at a Ramallah-area shrine, Nimr says – he became a leader in campus politics and street uprisings, and was in and out of Israeli jails.
By the late 1990s, Barghouti was an outspoken force of the "young guard" at legislative council sessions, and grew surprisingly critical of Arafat's less-than-democratic restraints on the parliament. But after the second intifada broke out in 2000, Barghouti began vacillating between governance and guerrilla warfare. In 2004, an Israeli court gave him five life sentences for his role in as many killings of Israelis.
Today, people who know Barghouti say that he's both older and wiser. He spent much of his time in jail reading voraciously and writing perspicaciously: He recently finished a PhD dissertation on the Palestinian legislative council and sent it to Cairo University. Barghouti drafted the 2006 "Prisoner's Document," which brought members of all factions together – Hamas included – in support of negotiations leading to a two-state solution with Israel. He also helped forge the Mecca Agreement, which attempted to bring about a national unity government for Palestinians. And while he still represents secular-national Fatah, Barghouti speaks the language of resistance that has become the mainstay of Hamas, minus the Islamic ideology.
"The language of Marwan – resistance and struggle – is closer to Hamas," says Iyad Barghouti, a political analyst who is not directly related to Marwan.
To be sure, some in Israel oppose Barghouti's release. But his lawyers, as well as others close to him, say he is at the top of the list, and that Israeli officials are not totally opposed. The question of his release is now more a matter of when than if, says Barghouti's lawyer, Hader Skikerat. Israeli leaders have said in recent days that they will not comment on the Shalit-for-prisoners deal so as not to take a chance of scuttling it.
But those who are most concerned about Barghouti's release are senior Fatah officials close to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, who are concerned about the impact of suddenly having Barghouti back.
"The image among the people is that Marwan be stronger than Abu Mazen. And the question which is raised here, again and again, is if Abu Mazen was talking to the Israelis, why didn't he demand Marwan's release before?" explains Dr. Barghouti, the analyst. "As a result, there may be a conflict between Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, a kind of question of who is really in charge," because Marwan Barghouti is considered the most powerful man in the West Bank, while Abbas is seen as weak and ineffective.
"It's known that there are people in the PA who will not be happy with his release, or the release of the rest of the parliament members," says Barghouti.