Alertnet (Opinion)
October 13, 2011 - 12:00am

Left out of a prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel, the Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti must now wait for a different type of deal to get him out of the Israeli jail where he is serving multiple life sentences.

It may never happen.

Hamas's indirect negotiations with Israel to exchange the soldier Gilad Shalit for 1,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails were seen over the last few years as Barghouti's best hope of release.

But the 52-year-old leading member of the Fatah movement was excluded from the swap announced on Tuesday by Hamas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"It was their last hope. Now the situation is very difficult," said one friend of the Barghouti family, reflecting sentiment among his supporters.

Barghouti is a popular figure among Palestinians. His supporters have portrayed him as a Nelson Mandela-like figure who could galvanise and reunite a divided national movement.

Many Palestinians see him as a leading contender to succeed Mahmoud Abbas, 76, as president. There are few other obvious successors to Abbas within the Fatah party which he leads.

In 2004, an Israeli court sentenced Barghouti to five life sentences and 40 years in jail. He was accused of orchestrating ambushes and suicide attacks during the Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, that was under way at the time.

All other factors remaining equal, Barghouti's fate is now firmly in Israel's hands. If he is to be set free, it will happen in a way that suits Israeli interests.

The prospects of that seem remote in the short term. But with time, an Israeli government may see advantage in letting him go, perhaps as a way to influence Palestinian politics and weaken Hamas, or to revive peace negotiations.

Viewed as a murderer by many Israelis, Barghouti was one of the prisoners Israel had refused to let go during rounds of indirect talks with Hamas since Shalit was captured by Gaza-based militants in 2006.

During his trial, whenever the Israeli prosecutor called him a terrorist, he would respond "occupation is terrorising", speaking in fluent Hebrew learned during his previous jail stints.

Despite his notoriety in Israel, some left-wing Israeli activists and politicians have visited him in prison, sharing the view that he could be a future Palestinian leader.

Some speculate it could suit an Israeli government one day to release Barghouti as a counterweight to the Hamas group, which is deeply hostile to Israel and has governed Gaza since it seized power there from the Palestinian Authority in 2007.

"I don't think Netanyahu is the person to tailor a deal on Marwan Barghouti, but if another Israeli prime minister is in power, perhaps from the centre or left, one could expect a political deal to reinforce Fatah," said Yitzhak Reiter of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"This is not a prediction, but it is one possible scenario."


Barghouti was a leading activist in both the first and second Palestinian uprisings against Israel.

Born in the West Bank, he supports the idea of an end to the Middle East conflict through the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem -- territory occupied by Israel in 1967.

After Yasser Arafat's death in 2004, Barghouti declared his candidacy for the Palestinian presidency. He then withdrew from the vote, clearing the way for an easy victory for Abbas.

Barghouti's charisma still resonates from behind bars. His portrait as a Palestinian hero has a prominent place on the towering Israeli security wall at a notorious flashpoint crossing between Ramallah and Jerusalem.

But hopes of his release on Tuesday were dashed.

Ultimately, it suited neither Israel nor the Fatah movement to have Barghouti liberated as part of a deal brought about by Hamas, said Bassem Zubaidi, a Palestinian political scientist from the West Bank university of Birzeit.

"Neither the Israelis nor Fatah are willing to give that credit to Hamas," he said. "Therefore I think, if he is to be released, it will be in a different kind of deal."

Barghouti's belief in the two-state solution to the Middle East conflict sets him apart from Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel and maintains a commitment to violence.

Although convicted by an Israeli court of militancy, he could yet be a future negotiating partner for Israel.

"If he is to project himself as a moderate, that will resonate with the Israelis," Zubaidi said.


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