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The man Israel didn't release from prison: Marwan Barghouti

Palestinians originally hoped that Marwan Barghouti, compared by some to former South African prisoner-turned-president Nelson Mandela, would be included in a prisoner swap finalized today.

By Rebecca CollardCorrespondent / December 18, 2011

Members of Hamas national security forces are reflected in a souvenir shop window with a poster of jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti. Palestinians hoped Barghouti, who many believe could make peace with Israel, would be released in the prisoner swap that was finalized today.

Mohammed Salem/Reuters

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Ramallah, West Bank

There were rumors and Palestinians hopes that the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap this fall would result in the release of Marwan Barghouti, the man who many see as a possible successor to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

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Under the Shalit deal, more than 1,000 Palestinians were to be released over several months in exchange for the Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas in 2006. But as Israel announced the names of the remaining 550 prisoners to be released today, Mr. Barghouti was not among them.

Barghouti is perhaps the most prominent Palestinian still imprisoned by Israel, and he is championed by many Palestinians not only as a preferred successor to Mr. Abbas but also the man who can make peace with Israel.

With a militant background and time behind bars, he has street cred that Abbas lacks, but that also makes him controversial in Israel and abroad. He has, however, professed a commitment to peace in more recent years; some compare him to South Africa's Nelson Mandela, who emerged from 27 years in prison to usher in the country's transition from apartheid to democracy.

"If Israel is really interested in a Palestinian partner for a two-state solution, they will release Marwan Barghouti," says Mahdi Abdel Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society For the Study of International Affairs in Jerusalem.  

Barghouti's appeal

Barghouti was arrested in 2002 and charged in 26 deaths and belonging to a terrorist organization. Two years later he was convicted for the death of four Israelis and a Greek monk, while the other 21 counts were dropped. Although no proof was brought showing his direct involvement in the killings, an Israeli court convicted him based on his leadership role of militias affiliated with his Fatah political party and sentenced him to five life terms.

The image of Barghouti in Israeli custody with handcuffed arms raised above his head dots the West Bank. At the Qalandiya checkpoint, where Palestinians frequently sit for hours waiting to cross into Israel, there is a huge portrait of him on the separation wall next to that of the late Palestinian icon Yasser Arafat – the guerrilla fighter turned president of the internationally backed Palestinian Authority (PA).

Arafat's successor, Mr. Abbas, has neither the charisma nor the military record of Arafat – and certainly less popular backing. He has spent most of his life outside of the West Bank, living in several Arab countries and earning a PhD at a university in Moscow. Barghouti, by contrast, is from the village of Kobar, just eight miles outside Ramallah.

“Barghouti is from our homeland,” says Jamil Anton, sitting in his electronics shop in Ramallah. "Abbas came from outside."

Older Palestinians not as enthralled

Many Palestinians in Ramallah recall personal encounters with Barghouti and consider him free of the sort of corruption allegations that have plagued PA officials, both under Abbas and Arafat – even though he served in the Palestinian parliament for a few years. Ahead of parliamentary elections in 2005, Barghouti released a statement from prison promising an end to corruption his Fatah movement.

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