(CNSNews.com) – Palestinian militant Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five consecutive life sentences for the murders of five people in terror attacks, has been elected to serve on Fatah’s Central Committee, and that is sparking new calls by left-wing Israeli politicians for his release. Freeing Barghouti would bolster the “moderate” Fatah organization, they say.
Fatah’s recently-concluded congress in Bethlehem, its first in 20 years, elected Barghouti to fill one of 18 available places on its top decision-making body. Provisional results show that he received the third highest number of votes cast by delegates.
Fatah, led by Mahmoud Abbas, is the Palestinian faction backed by the U.S. as a potential Mideast peace partner. It is engaged in a continuing feud with Islamist rival Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.
Despite the rift, Hamas has been demanding freedom for Barghouti along with hundreds of other prisoners in exchange for releasing Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier abducted by Hamas more than three years ago. He is still being held in Gaza.
Barghouti was a leader of the Tanzim and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, factions within Fatah which have been linked to – and in many cases claimed responsibility for – lethal attacks including suicide bombings. American citizens were among their victims.
The Fatah congress last week endorsed the Al-Aqsa Brigade as an official Fatah organ.
Long mentioned as a potential successor to Palestinian Authority and Fatah leader Yasser Arafat – and, after Arafat’s death, Abbas – the 50-year-old has a strong following that has evidently grown since his 2004 conviction.
An opinion poll conducted in March by institutes in Jerusalem and Ramallah found that, in a hypothetical Palestinian presidential contest, Barghouti would beat Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, by 61-34 percent. By comparison, the poll found that the incumbent, Abbas, would lose to Haniyeh by a 45-47 point margin.
Following Barghouti’s election Tuesday to the Central Committee, a government minister from the center-left Labor party in the ruling coalition, Avishay Braverman, said that in the light of the result, “We must consider releasing him in order to create a moderate and strong political leadership among the Palestinians.”
“Barghouti can, it appears, supply the goods and strengthen the moderates who support a diplomatic solution and an arrangement with the State of Israel,” Israeli media quoted Braverman as saying.
Israeli television reported that another Labor minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, was apparently discussing the matter with cabinet colleagues and with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Ben-Eliezer has for some time been pushing for Barghouti’s release.
“He is a murderer, yes,” he told Israel Radio last year. “But you do not sign agreements with educators and professors; you sign agreements with strong leaders.”
Conservative members of the Knesset baulked at the latest statements.
“The calls for Barghouti’s release are made by leftists, who continue to repeat obsolete catchphrases, and still believe the murderous terrorist organization Fatah should be strengthened in order to fight Hamas,” the Jerusalem Post quoted Arye Eldad, a member of the right wing National Union, as saying.
Moshe Matalon of the right wing Yisrael Beiteinu party called on “liberals in the Knesset to refrain from making statements which make us seem weak” in Fatah’s eyes.
‘Strike at the Zionist enemy’
Barghouti was once regarded by the Israeli government as a moderate and a supporter of the U.S.-sponsored Oslo peace process. He led Fatah in the West Bank and was a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
But with the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000, he emerged as a key militant voice, calling for “resistance” attacks to be stepped up.
March 2002 was a particularly deadly month that saw more than 130 Israelis killed in terror attacks, including suicide bombings, carried out by various factions.
In one, an Al-Aqsa Brigade suicide bomber detonated his device alongside a crowd of women and children in an Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood as the Jewish Sabbath ended. Among the 11 people killed were two babies and four children aged from three to 15.
In another attack the following morning 10 Israelis – seven soldiers and three civilians – were shot dead north of Ramallah. Again, the Al-Aqsa Brigade claimed responsibility.
While the P.A. issued a statement saying it condemned “all attacks against civilians on both sides,” Barghouti told a Hezbollah-run television station in Lebanon: “The resistance forces will continue to strike at the Zionist enemy. And I am certain that the force of these strikes will even increase.”
Before the month was over, at least 17 more people were killed in further attacks carried out by Barghouti’s group, including suicide bombings.
Israel reacted to the wave of violence by launching a large-scale military operation in the P.A.-ruled areas in April, during which Barghouti was arrested.
The government later released documents it had seized during the operation which it said provided evidence that he had received large amounts of money from the P.A. and other sources to finance terrorist cells’ activities.
An Israeli judge later that year said Barghouti “led, operated, assisted, incited and participated in acts of terror carried out by field commanders and terror activists who were subordinate to them, and thus willfully caused the deaths of hundreds of Israelis…”
His lengthy trial gave Israel the opportunity to argue that it was not only Islamists that were using terrorism as a tactic but the mainstream Palestinian leadership too.
Barghouti was accused of planning 37 attacks that killed a total of 26 people and wounded scores more. In the end he was acquitted of charges relating to 21 of the deaths on the basis of insufficient available evidence.
He was convicted and sentenced for his role in the remaining five murders.
They included three Israelis killed when an Al-Aqsa Brigade member opened fire on a Tel Aviv restaurant in March 2002, then began stabbing people after running out of ammunition. Thirty people were injured in the attack, which the indictment said Barghouti had authorized and received a report on immediately afterwards.
Yosef Habi, 52, a father of two who had just left the restaurant with his wife, Haya, when the shooting began, according to Israel’s foreign ministry.
“The terrorist fired at Haya, injuring her. Yosef came to her help, shouting: ‘Don’t shoot.’ The terrorist fired at Yosef’s legs. Yosef struggle[d] with the terrorist, but was fatally wounded by a stab wound in the chest.”
Another victim was Eli Dahan, 53, a cafe owner and grandfather stabbed to death by the attacker. The third was Salim Barakat, 33, a policeman who responded to the attack and shot the gunman. When he leaned over to check whether the attacker was concealing a bomb, Barakat was fatally stabbed.
Barghouti’s fourth murder conviction related to Yoela Chen, a 45-year-old mother of two shot dead at a gas station north of Jerusalem in January 2002. She was en route to a family wedding at the time.
The fifth conviction related to the death of Father Georgios Tsibouktzakis, 34, a Greek Orthodox monk based at a monastery near Jericho. Gunmen opened fire on his car as he drove near Jerusalem in June 2001.
Barghouti was also given two consecutive terms of 20 years’ imprisonment for a failed car bombing at a shopping center in Jerusalem and for membership of a banned terror organization.
After his sentencing, the Al-Aqsa Brigade said in a statement to wire services, “We urge all our fighters to kidnap Zionists, children, women and soldiers and sentence them to death.”
“We call on all our cells in all the Palestine homeland to kidnap Israeli soldiers and civilians and execute them.”
Barghouti’s group was also responsible for attacks in which at least five American citizens were killed.
Esh-Kodesh Gilmore, a security guard at a social security office in East Jerusalem, was shot dead in October 2000. His family came from Cleveland and New Jersey.
Binyamin and Talia Kahane, formerly of New York, died in a December 2000 shooting attack on their car which also left five of their children wounded.
In January 2002, a 71-year old American citizen, Avi Boaz, was kidnapped at a P.A. security checkpoint south of Jerusalem. His bullet-riddled body was later found in a car, and the Al-Aqsa Brigade claimed responsibility for his death.
The next month Lee Akunis, a 20-year old Israeli soldier and American citizen, was shot dead by gunmen near Ramallah.