Sharon: Barghouti Will Remain In Jail

Lamia Lahoud - The Jerusalem Post - December 1, 2004

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Thursday that jailed West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti would remain in jail despite his plans to run for head of the Palestinian Authority.

"He can (campaign) according to the conditions in the prison in which he sits," Sharon said at a meeting of Israeli newspaper editors.

"Barghouti, who has commissioned bloody terrorist attacks, could be freed at the earliest in 100 years - with time off for good behaviour," former Internal Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi told Israel Radio.

In a dramatic turnaround, imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti (Profile) registered as a candidate for the Palestinian Authority election on January 9, running against Fatah nominee and PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Profile), his wife announced shortly before the midnight Wednesday deadline.

Fadwa Barghouti submitted the registration despite her husband's announcement last Friday that he was stepping aside and throwing his support behind Abbas. He said at the time that his aim was to maintain unity within Fatah.

PA officials and senior Fatah leaders were taken by surprise. "This will put Fatah in a difficult position," PA Minister for Negotiations Saeb Erekat told The Jerusalem Post.

Even some of Barghouti's traditional supporters slammed his decision.

Zakaria Zubeidi, the head of the armed Fatah offshoot Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades in its Jenin stronghold, said Barghouti should not be running against the official choice of Fatah.

"We are against the candidacy of Marwan because it is contrary to the decision of the central committee of Fatah which unanimously chose Abu Mazen (Abbas) as the candidate for the election," Zubeidi told AFP.

"Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades supports the candidacy of Abu Mazen because his candidacy is a reflection of the unity of Fatah."

Outgoing US Secretary of State Colin Powell admitted Barghuti's candidacy "might be problematic".

Abbas' office reported Thursday morning that there have been contacts since Wednesday night with Barghouti's close associates in order to end the crisis. The fear is that Abbas will be pushed aside, while the leftist organizations and the opposition- including Hamas- will join forces to assure Barghouti's victory in the coming elections.

A senior official from Abbas' office said that Israel allowed whoever wanted to visit the imprisoned Barghouti to do so in free manner, and that such permissiveness was questionable in his eyes.

Barghouti said he is running "to protect the intifada," Barghouti associate Ahmed Ghanem told The Jerusalem Post. He and other Fatah leaders received a letter from Barghouti Wednesday in which he accused the Fatah leadership of trying to discredit the uprising and blame the late PA chairman, Yasser Arafat, for the misery of the Palestinian people. Talking about the possibility of achieving true peace now, after Arafat's death, is tantamount to discrediting his path, Barghouti wrote.

A PA source close to Abbas insisted that he would win despite Barghouti's candidacy. Barghouti is playing a tactical game, the source said, to pressure Fatah into giving the younger generation and the Tanzim greater representation and more political power.

Members of the Palestinian Legislative Council close to the Tanzim are backing a proposal to change the election laws to give the younger guard a better chance of being voted in.

The Tanzim also wants to change the internal Fatah system so more young local leaders could replace the old guard.

Barghouti is the champion of that move in the West Bank. "There is a lot of pressure on Marwan from some of the younger Fatah leaders and Tanzim to run against Abu Mazen [Abbas]," the source close to Abbas said.

Barghouti will be running as an independent, Ghanem said, though he would be using his background in Fatah to win votes.

Another Palestinian official said there was a danger that a split Fatah vote would allow one of the other candidates to win, especially if Hamas should decide at the last minute to register a sympathizer as an independent candidate.

Officially, though, Hamas is boycotting the election.

"We in the Islamic resistance announce our boycott and our non-participation in the presidential elections for the Palestinian Authority," Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas leader, told reporters in Gaza City. "All Hamas members will abide by the decision... but there is no call for ordinary Palestinians not to vote."

The movement will, however, participate in municipal elections.

The first round of local elections will be held on December 23.

Barghouti's brother Muqbal confirmed that he had paid the $3,000 fee to register his brother as a candidate. Bargouti's wife and some of his close Fatah associates visited him in jail Wednesday.