Groups Call for Release of Marwan Barghouti

Member of the Palestinian al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades

A masked member of the Palestinian al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, the largest ruling Fatah offshoot, brandishes a weapon in front of a poster of jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghuti. Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images

Marwan Barghouti's name evokes strong reactions on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

To some Palestinians, Barghouti is the equivalent of Nelson Mandela, a leader unjustly jailed and the only person capable of heading efforts to create an independent Palestinian state.

To many Israelis, Barghouti is a terrorist with blood on his hands who deserves to remain behind bars for the rest of his life.

Since the Islamist group Hamas forcibly took control of all of the Gaza Strip last month, there are new calls in Israel and the Palestinian territories to release the 48-year-old jailed Fatah leader to help fend off further Hamas gains.

"We don't have time to waste," says Israeli lawmaker Ephraim Sneh, a senior Labor party official who, until a recent cabinet re-shuffle, served as Israel's Deputy defense minister. "Look, for us, Hamas taking over Palestine is totally unacceptable and we have to prevent it," Sneh says. "And you cannot defeat Hamas without a strong, moderate Palestinian alternative to Hamas."

But right now, the man leading that alternative to Hamas is Mahmoud Abbas, the increasingly unpopular 72-year-old Fatah leader who's widely seen as indecisive and weak. Under Abbas, the Fatah movement is increasingly splintered and drifting. Many in Abbas's own party see him as ineffectual.

West Supporting Abbas

Nonetheless, Western countries and Israel have pledged to redouble efforts to bolster Abbas following Hamas's armed takeover of Gaza.

In a speech Monday, President Bush pledged an extra $190 million in American humanitarian aid for the Palestinians and $80 million to build up Abbas's security forces. The president also called for an Israeli-Palestinian Middle East peace summit for the Fall, to be led by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

President Abbas met with Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert this week and discussed security amnesties for some Fatah militants aimed at helping strengthen the Palestinian leader.

But to some, Abbas's "emergency government" in the West Bank is a dubious — even doomed — project unless Fatah is led by a more charismatic, popular leader able to rally moderates.

The Islamists of Hamas, what Israeli lawmaker Sneh calls a dangerous Iranian proxy, now have total control of the coastal strip bordering Israel.

For Sneh, the only viable alternative is Barghouti, the street leader of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising against Israel, who's now serving multiple life sentences for murder. Sneh says if Israel is really serious about strengthening Palestinian moderates, the government should explore releasing Barghouti now.

"Because he's moderate and because he is the most popular Palestinian leader," Sneh says. "I would like the Palestinian society to be led by moderates, not by fanatics and the proxies of [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad."

Polls Show Support for Barghouti

Recent public opinion polls in the Palestinian territories show that Barghouti would defeat Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh with nearly 60 percent of the vote in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip if new elections were held. Charismatic and articulate, the 48-year-old Barghouti has continued to have a major impact on Palestinian politics — even from behind bars.

Barghouti played a major role in helping to forge the agreement that led to the short-lived "unity government" between Fatah and Hamas. When that power-sharing agreement fell apart amid factional warfare in Gaza, Barghouti's public backing of President Abbas's "emergency government" proved important to building support for the highly controversial move.

Barghouti supporters say he's the only viable alternative to Abbas. Fatah's Salam Fayyad, the Western-educated Palestinian prime minister, is highly regarded. But he's a technocrat and economist, not a charismatic leader.

Former Gaza strongman and controversial Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan, a long-time favorite of American intelligence agencies, is more unpopular than ever following the Fatah collapse in Gaza. Many on the Palestinian street see Dahlan as corrupt and out of touch. Hamas calls him a "collaborator."

Professor and pollster Tamar Hermann, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, questions whether the government of Prime Minister Olmert really wants to strengthen Abbas and other relative Palestinian moderates.

"If they were serious in their efforts to help Fatah, certainly they could have released Barghouti," Hermann says. "Which makes me doubt the sincerity of the Israeli decision makers in their rhetoric about really helping the counter forces to Hamas."

Barghouti grew up in the West Bank and cut his ideological teeth as the political leader of Fatah's armed militant wing, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. Today Barghouti is the de facto leader of Fateh's "young guard." They're reformers who have openly criticized the insular, often autocratic rule of Fatah's founders, the so-called "old guard" whom many on the Palestinian street see as aloof and corrupt.

"The only potential leadership for Fatah is Marwan Barghouti and he is in prison," says Sahed Nimer, a Birzeit University political scientist and a close advisor and friend of the jailed leader. Professor Nimer, who helps run the "Free Marwan Barghouti" campaign, says Fatah remains badly hobbled by a leadership crisis precisely when it most needs a decisive, strong leader to rally Palestinian moderates, negotiate with Israel and attempt to reach out and soften Hamas hardliners.

"The releasing of Marwan Barghouti would be a huge step forward," he says, "It's in the interest of all parties — including Hamas."

Barghouti was arrested by Israeli forces in 2002 at the height of the Second Entifada. He's is currently serving five consecutive life sentences after being convicted of murder for helping to plan suicide bombings in Israel that killed four Israelis and a Greek monk. There's strong opposition in Israel to release any Palestinian with "blood on his hands."

But Israeli analyst Tamar Hermann believes most Israelis would support freeing Barghouti if the political dividend looked promising.

"If tomorrow [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert would say 'Okay, we should release Barghouti to give a push to a real peace process,' I'm sure that we would not see massive opposition on the grass-roots level," Hermann says.

Some Unsure About Barghouti

Others aren't so sure. Many on the Israeli right wing say Barghouti's been unduly lionized. They argue that exaggerated centrism and political prowess obscure Barghouti's enduring radicalism. They point out that Barghouti still advocates violence against Israeli soldiers and civilian settlers in the occupied West Bank — what Barghouti advisor Sahed Nimer calls "legitimate resistance."

"Marwan is saying 'Our hands are open for the peace talks: 1967 borders, a two state solution.' And he is against any operation inside Israel," Nimer says. "But he is with any kind of resistance in the West Bank and Gaza Strip," he says. "The occupation soldiers have no business being in Ramallah and Jenin and Nablus. To resist them, this is our duty, this is our right," Nimer says.

Asked about Barghouti recently, Israel's Public Security Minister Avi Dicther said: "When Barghouti finishes serving his five life sentences, he'll still have 30 years left in prison."

Only then, Dicther said, can Israel discuss freeing Marwan Barghouti.

Q&A: Hamas and Fatah

Hamas symbol

The official Hamas emblem shows two crossed swords in front of the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The mosque is framed by two Palestinian flags with the phrases, in Arabic, "God is Great" and "Muhammad is the prophet of Allah." hide caption

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Fatah symbol

The official Fatah emblem depicts two fists holding rifles, with a hand grenade in between. In the background is a map of Israel and the occupied territories. hide caption

itoggle caption

Hamas and Fatah are rival Palestinian factions that have attacked Israel in the past. Here's a look at the two organizations:

What is Hamas?

Hamas, an Islamist group, has pursued a policy of "armed resistance" against Israel — carried out by suicide bombing attacks on Israeli civilians — while also extending social-welfare programs to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank. Hamas' official name is Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement).

What is Fatah?

Fatah was the first exile group to launch attacks against Israel. Fatah's official name is Harakat al Tahrir al Falastini (Palestinian Liberation Movement). Fatah is the dominant member of the greater Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

What are the origins of these groups?

Hamas was founded in the Gaza Strip in 1987 by Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Dr. Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, both of whom have since been killed by Israel.

Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious and political organization with branches throughout the Arab world. In 1988, Hamas wrote its charter, which calls for the destruction of the state of Israel and swears to "raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine." The charter is still in effect today.

However, Hamas member Ismail Haniya — named prime minister under the unity government — has spoken of a possible long-term truce with Israel, if Israel withdraws from territory occupied after the 1967 war.

Fatah was founded by the late Yasser Arafat and a small group of Palestinian nationalists in the late 1950s. The group is a member of the PLO, a loose umbrella group of a number of Palestinian organizations founded in Cairo in the mid-1960s.

Fatah quickly became the most powerful member of the PLO, which Arafat also led.

What does the PLO think of Israel?

In 1993 the PLO officially renounced terrorism and recognized Israel's right to exist. In exchange, PLO leaders were allowed to return from exile in Tunisia and recognized as the Palestinian Authority, the governing body of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. They were also allowed to set up Palestinian security forces. Although the PLO has officially renounced terrorism, some of its member organizations have been accused of or have claimed responsibility for continued attacks.

The PLO was initially based largely in Jordan. But after fighting between PLO guerrillas and the Jordanian army in 1970, a conflict known as Black September, the PLO was forced out of Jordan. Most of the guerrillas — and Yasser Arafat — settled in Lebanon. The PLO then launched frequent attacks on Israel from their Lebanese bases, prompting two Israeli invasions of Lebanon — in 1978 and 1982.

What approach does Hamas take toward Israel?

Hamas calls for the destruction of Israel. Its armed resistance has been carried out by suicide bombing attacks on Israeli civilian buses, nightclubs and other venues. As a result the United States, Israel and the European Union have labeled it a "terrorist organization." Human Rights Watch has also criticized Hamas for its attacks on civilians.

Hamas' main claim for support among Palestinians comes from its provision of social welfare services that neither the Israelis nor Fatah provide. From its inception, Hamas has funded and developed an elaborate network of schools, orphanages, health clinics and other social services that have given it reach into every sector of its populations.

How is Fatah viewed as compared to Hamas?

Despite its violent past, Fatah is now seen as the more moderate Palestinian party. While the group's constitution also calls for the destruction of Israel, the group falls under the PLO, which has renounced terrorism. Fatah's leadership of the Palestinian Authority was seen as corrupt and inept by many Palestinians, which is the major reason for its loss of seats in the government in the 2006 election.

How have Hamas and Fatah fared politically?

In January 2006, Palestinian voters in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem voted for a new Palestinian legislature. Hamas won a major victory, taking 74 of the 132 seats, in an election deemed fair and honest by international observers. Its rival, the once-dominant Fatah party, criticized for ineffectiveness and corruption, took only 45 seats.

Fatah still controls the presidency, the highest elected position in the government. Mahmoud Abbas has held the position since January 2005. Fatah also controls roughly 70,000 police and security forces throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These forces regularly clash with Hamas loyalists.

The surprise political victory in 2006 gave Hamas control of the Palestinian government. It also created a conflict with Israel and with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas refuses to accept Israel's right to exist and says it will not honor pre-existing treaties signed by the Palestinian Authority. In light of this, Israel, with the support of the United States and the European Union, launched a financial boycott of the Hamas-led government. Israel refused to pay the Palestinian Authority its monthly trade taxes, which Israel collects, and Washington has sought to freeze all bank transfers to the Palestinian Authority. The results deprived the authority's 150,000 civil servants of salaries for a time, but aid has continued to flow from the European Union and the United States via a specially devised "mechanism" that bypasses the Palestinian government.

How have recent events impacted the relationship between Hamas and Fatah?

In June, Hamas took control over the Gaza Strip, destroying the headquarters of President Abbas as well as other government buildings. As a result of the violence, Abbas dissolved the unity government, a power-sharing deal between the two groups that was signed on Feb. 9, 2007, and swore in an emergency government. He forced out the prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, who is a member of Hamas. Abbas named Salam Fayyad, a Western-backed independent lawmaker, to the post.

Hamas leaders have condemned the move, making a decision not to recognize the changes, and insisted that the Fatah-Hamas unity government formed in March remains in charge of the Palestinian Authority. Haniyeh has claimed that he continues to hold the position of prime minister of the Palestinian Authority.

Leaders from the United States, Europe and Israel have spoken out in support of Abbas and his new government — and plan to restore aid to the Palestinian people.

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