Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Popular Palestinian Leader Remains in Israeli Prison

'Palestinian Mandela' pulls strings from jail - World -

'Palestinian Mandela' pulls strings from jail

Popular and still influential, grassroots politician Marwan Barghouti, backs a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And if he's freed as part of pending prisoner swap, he could have deep impact on Middle East politics

March 11, 2009
Oakland Ross

RAMALLAH, West Bank – The man most Palestinians would choose as their new leader – if they could – is a gifted grassroots politician, fluent in three languages, who's currently behind bars.

But Marwan Barghouti could experience a swift change of address if a pending deal goes ahead to release hundreds of Palestinians from Israeli-run jails in exchange for an Israeli soldier taken hostage by armed militants from the Gaza Strip nearly three years ago.

The swap might take place within the next few weeks and could have a profound impact on the future of Middle Eastern politics if it entails freedom for the man some refer to as the Nelson Mandela of Palestine.

"The negotiations are more secretive than before," a Barghouti advocate, Sa'd Nimr, told the Star in an interview yesterday. "I hope this is a positive sign."

Director of the Palestinian campaign to free Barghouti, Nimr has been following every twist and turn of ongoing, indirect negotiations in Cairo aimed at securing the release of Sgt. Gilad Schalit, 22, an Israeli soldier being held captive in the Gaza Strip.

Freedom for the Israeli soldier would almost certainly entail liberation for Barghouti, who speaks Arabic, English and Hebrew and is seen as a champion of honest and democratic rule in a society that has known few truly honest or democratic rulers.

As revered among Palestinians as he is reviled by many Israelis, Barghouti remains popular despite having spent the past seven years in prison, following his arrest in 2002. Two years later, an Israeli court convicted him of having masterminded the deaths of five civilians.

A poll published here Monday indicated Barghouti, 49, would defeat the second-most popular Palestinian politician – Ismael Haniyeh, the top Hamas leader in Gaza – by a margin of nearly two to one, if a vote were held now.

Although a prisoner, Barghouti remains active in Palestinian politics and is regularly consulted by other leaders, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads Fatah, the more moderate Palestinian faction now engaged in reconciliation talks with Hamas.

The two sides split after a spasm of internecine bloodshed in Gaza nearly two years ago and have been at bitter odds ever since.

Barghouti has pushed hard to bring the two factions back together.

"We are in constant contact with Marwan through our lawyers," said Nimr. "He has his fingerprints on lots of issues."

Unlike Abbas, who eschews violent struggle, Barghouti endorses armed resistance against Israel's occupation of Palestinian land. But he opposes attacks on civilians within Israel proper.

"People under occupation have the right to resist," Nimr said. "Try to tell the people in Tibet that they are terrorists."

Barghouti has long railed against the corruption and cronyism that have weakened Palestinian support for Fatah.

He continues to back a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at a time when many of his compatriots are losing hope that negotiations with Israel will ever lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

If he were to be released now, said Nimr, Barghouti's first priority would be the rebuilding of Fatah from within.

He would also set about preparing for legislative and presidential elections scheduled for next January – elections that he could very well win, or so the polls suggest.

But, first, there will have to be a prisoner exchange, and Marwan Barghouti will have to be freed.

Nimr takes neither prospect for granted.

"We were more optimistic last month," he said. "Now we are a bit skeptical."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009
23:43 Mecca time, 20:43 GMT

Gaza family sues Israel over deaths

More than 1,300 people were killed during the Israeli offensive in Gaza two months ago

A Palestinian family is suing Ehud Olmert, Israel's outgoing prime minister, and other government officials over the deaths of their relatives during the recent assault on Gaza.

The al-Samouni family, which saw 29 of its members killed in the conflict, filed the case in Jerusalem on Tuesday, seeking $200m in damages for "criminal negligence".

More than 1,300 Palestinians died during Israel's three-week war last December and January, one-third of them children.

The al-Samounis say Israeli soldiers raided their homes in the middle of the conflict, and moved the extended family together into one house.

According to the survivors' accounts, partly corroborated by the International Red Cross and the United Nations, shells and missiles fired by the Israeli military hit the house the following day, leaving 29 people dead.

"This was a barbaric action. They said that there was resistance here, and I don't know what. But there was no resistance," Naela al-Samouni, one of the survivors, said.

Homeless family

Two months after the attack, the remaining al-Samounis live in a makeshift tent amid the rubble of their former home.

Tuesday's lawsuit names Olmert and Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, as defendants, and accuses the Israeli military of "criminal negligence" for killing innocent civilians.

Mohammad Fukra, a Palestinian Israeli attorney, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the al-Samouni family, saying the family had the right to sue Israel and its officials.

Israeli courts in the past have, however, rejected claims from Palestinians harmed in conflicts.

Mark Regev, an Israeli government spokesman, has claimed the Palestinian group Hamas was responsible for the deaths, saying the group used civilians as human shields.

Israel undertook the Gaza offensive with the purported aim of stopping rocket fire from the territory into southern Israel.

Source: Al Jazeera

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