Barghouti 'to run for Palestinian leadership'

13/11/2004 - 18:22:43

Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian uprising leader jailed by Israel who is perhaps the strongest candidate to oust Yasser Arafat’s old guard of politicians, will run in presidential elections, a close aide said today.

The candidacy of Barghouti, who supports violence, but says he wants peace with Israel, could shake up the calcified world of Palestinians politics. By law, elections are to be held by January 9, or within 60 days of Arafat’s death on Thursday.

Many believe the popular Barghouti is the only leader capable of unifying squabbling Palestinian factions, reining in militants and possibly restarting peace efforts with Israel. However, Israel is determined not to free Barghouti, who is serving multiple life terms for a role in the killings of four Israelis and a Greek monk.

Barghouti also could represent the best hope for Arafat’s Fatah movement to beat down a challenge by the increasingly popular hard-line Islamic militant group Hamas, which is considering running a candidate.

“When he takes that decision (to run), we will be near him and we will support him,” said Ahmed Ghneim, a senior Fatah leader and another member of the young guard. “I think he has the best chances of anybody in the movement to win the elections.”

Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, said she was unaware of her husband’s plans. But his brother Hisham said: “His people around him, from the Fatah and Tanzim (Fatah rank-and-file), want him, and if they want him, he is looking to be president.”

After Arafat’s death, Parliament Speaker Rauhi Fattouh was sworn in as the caretaker leader of the Palestinian Authority.

Though some officials have talked of amending the law to allow parliament to choose the new leader, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said today that elections would be held by January 9. Fattouh meet with elections officials tomorrow to decide whether to hold the poll on January 7 or January 9, Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said.

Osama Hamdan, a Hamas leader in Beirut, Lebanon, said the group is deliberating whether to run a candidate. A senior Hamas official in Gaza said the group’s leaders would meet soon and were considering the issue seriously.

Arafat’s death raised speculation that Israel might release Barghouti in a goodwill gesture, but Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom ruled that out. “He will remain in prison for the rest of his life, because he’s a murderer, because he’s responsible for the killing of so many” innocent people, Shalom said on Thursday.

Barghouti intends to run regardless, and will only bow out of the race if Fatah holds primaries and he loses, the person close to Barghouti said.

Erekat said the Fatah candidate will probably be chosen by the movement’s small central committee and not in a primary.

The committee would likely nominate Mahmoud Abbas, 69, an old guard politician who has taken over Arafat’s role as head of the PLO. It is far from certain, though, whether Abbas could defeat a Hamas candidate.

Barghouti, a former West Bank leader of Fatah, has firm street credentials. He spent six years in Israeli jails before being deported in 1987, and was one of the first exiles to return seven years later after interim peace deals with Israel were signed.

He once had close ties to Israeli peace activists, and speaks fluent Hebrew that he learned in prison. But after the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting four years ago, he said force – including shooting attacks on Israelis - was justified to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Regardless, he still says he supports peace.

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