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.
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 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.
Such promises make Barghouti appealing to young people like Ahmed Moussa.
“The younger leadership needs to take its place. We need new blood,” says Younes of Barghouti, who is two decades younger than Abbas. “We will have new elections and there should be new people in these elections, especially for Fatah.”
But Ahmed's father, Samir Moussa, is among a generation of older West Bank residents who suffered through two intifadas, or uprisings, and don't want to jeopardize the economic benefits of stability they're now enjoying, helped by Abbas's message of moderation and compromise.
International aid money has poured into Ramallah under his leadership and that of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and the economy has been steadily growing. When Abbas defied Israel and the US and made a bid for full Palestinian membership at the United Nations, his popularity spiked; one poll showed him trouncing Barghouti for the first time.
“I think Abu Mazan is the man of these days, because now we need negotiations and he is the man who can lead us in these negotiations,” says the elder Moussa.
Barghouti's potential strengths at the peace table
Barghouti is considered a leader of the second intifada, which began in 2000. While he has opposed attacks on civilians inside Israel proper, he has maintained the Palestinian right to resistance in the occupied West Bank.
"And while I, and the Fatah movement to which I belong, strongly oppose attacks and the targeting of civilians inside Israel, our future neighbor," wrote Barghouti in a 2002 op-ed in the Washington Post. "I reserve the right to protect myself, to resist the Israeli occupation of my country and to fight for my freedom. If Palestinians are expected to negotiate under occupation, then Israel must be expected to negotiate as we resist that occupation."
But while Barghouti is remembered as a man of resistance – he is the leader of Fatah's armed wing, Tanzim – he has advocated from prison for a two-state solution and for negotiating a settlement with Israel.
“Marwan was for violence,” says Hassan Hamdon, who works in the real estate sector. “But when he gets out of jail, if there is a road to peace, he will take it.”
Hani Masri, director of the Palestine Media, Research, and Studies Centre in Ramallah, says Barghouti is better suited to making peace with Israel than Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.
"Barghouti can solve the problem better because he believes in resistance and negotiation," says Mr. Masri. "And Abu Mazen [Abbas] believes just [in[ negotiations. And it failed because the Israeli government didn't give him anything.... Until now, negotiations failed and the peace process is still without peace."
Although Barghouti's violent past gives Israel pause, his overwhelming popularity – which stems partially from his past as a resistance fighter – may enable him to make compromises and gains in negotiations for peace that Abbas cannot. Documents leaked by the Arab satellite TV network Al Jazeera earlier this year showed negotiators under his leadership offering compromises to Israel that many Palestinians are unwilling to accept.
“Arafat was a strong man. He could make peace. If Marwan comes out, he will be a strong man, too. A lot of people will vote for him. […] But if you have a weak person he cannot make anything,” says Mr. Hamdon. “Abbas thinks well, but he is not strong enough to change things and the Israelis see him as weak person, and that’s why they are not going to make peace with him.”