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.

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

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.

"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."

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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