Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Why the PA does not want Marwan Barghouti released

The Shalit deal seems to be entering a very serious mode, with the Germans - who helped negotiate the prisoner exchange with Hizbollah last year - entering the fray; the leader of the Hamas 'military wing' departing for talks in Cairo; and increasing buzz that a deal might be struck within the next month.

At issue is the release of 125 Palestinians, whom Hamas wants to free but Israel does not, because they have 'blood on their hands'. One of these men, apparently, is Marwan Barghouti, former leader of the Tanzim, the Fatah armed branch, currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail for five counts of murder.

Hamas has long insisted on his release and several years ago, when the PA was in total disarray and lacked real leadership, it would have made sense from a Palestinian point of view; he would have been his people's natural leader.

But today, the PA is increasingly stable, with its economy - as we reported last week - soaring, President Abbas finally strengthening, and a general atmosphere of hopefulness spreading.

How would Barghouti's release change this delicate equation? And - moral questions about releasing convicted murderers aside - would it be in Israel's interests to set him free?

I asked Prof Hillel Frisch, an expert on the Palestinians from the BESA center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University.

He explained that for Hamas, demanding Bargouti's release is a way of creating trouble for their enemies on the West Bank, the current leaders of Fatah:

"There are two kinds of leaders in Palestinian nationalist politics - statists such as Abu Mazen and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, who hoped that the Palestinian Authority would devolve into statehood, and if they supported the use of violence, only sparingly, to improve negotiation positions; and revolutionaries, whom Barghouti headed, and whom Arafat supported and prodded on in 2001, causing most of the tension in the Palestinian camp.

The last thing this current leadership wants to see is Barghouti free. Abbas prefers him in prison. Hamas is doing this to create tension - they know he will create tremendous division and it is a way of weakening Abbas in the enemy camp.

Abbas has not pressed for his release.

Barghouti feels that he should be where Abbas is. The only way he can do it is by being more radical.

It would be a terrible mistake for Israel to release an agitator like Barghouti. It is not in Israel's interests to weaken and create disunity in the nationalist Palestinian camp. I think this is a consensus from right to left."

Of course, if Barghouti is released, it is unclear where he will be released to - Gaza, the West Bank or elsewhere - but as he showed through constant political activity in prison, he is quite capable of exerting tremendous political influence, no matter where he is.

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