Sunday, November 28, 2004

Major bumps ahead

November 28 2001

So far so smooth, but major bumps ahead

IT was indeed a smart move on the part of Mahmoud Abbas to have made a deal under which Marwan Barghouti eased himself out of the race for Palestinian presidency and endorsed Abbas's candidacy. In return, Abbas pledged to pump in young blood to the mainstream Fateh faction by holding elections to its Revolutionary Council for the first time in 16 years and to exert efforts to release Barghouti from Israeli detention.

While the given reason for the deal was that Fateh wanted to avert a split vote, Abbas would have surely realised that he would be in a vulnerable position if Barghouti were to be a candidate for president.

It was a foregone conclusion that Barghouti, even while in prison, would have given Abbas a tough time in the race for Palestinian presidency as Yasser Arafat's successor, for he has built a formidable reputation as a never-say-die freedom fighter in relatively few years. He has immense popularity both in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and could even arrange truces from detention.

It is no exaggeration to assert that Barghouti would have attracted quite a few votes even from hard-line groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well as leftist factions because they see his agenda for liberation as closer to theirs than anyone else's.

Barghouti, who can easily claim absolute loyalty from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades -- an offshoot of Fateh -- was not exactly one of the most prominent Palestinian political activists until the eruption of the second intifada in 2000.

He did make a name for himself as an organiser of the first (1987-1992) intifada -- he was expelled by the Israeli occupation authorities during the uprising -- and while in exile in Lebanon and Jordan until late 1994. He crossed the River Jordan back to the West Bank in the second half of 1994 under the Oslo agreements that the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) signed with Israel.

Although he opposed the Oslo accords, he followed up the course of the process launched by that agreement, and soon realised that it was not going anywhere near the Palestinian aspirations for statehood. He started making the point to Arafat and also held many forums with fellow Palestinians to discuss the situation and weigh various options. And then came the collapse of the Oslo process in 2000 and he and his people were ready to resume armed resistance.

It was then his name repeatedly hit the headlines and his voice was repeatedly heard as one representing the younger Palestinian generation at public gatherings. He exhorted Palestinian youth to wage armed struggle for liberation at funerals of Palestinians killed in the confrontation with the occupation forces.

Soon he was elevated, in popular opinion, as a possible successor to Arafat, much to the surprise of many who had thought that the old guard around Arafat would have made sure that none other than one from among themselves could or would stake a claim as successor to the "Old Man."

Man of convictions

It was also clear that the Israeli feared Barghouti more than any other Palestinian fighter because such was his magnetism for the Palestinian youth. He rejected attacks against Israeli civilians but reserved and indeed exercised the legitimate rights of a people under occupation against the occupying forces.

Barghouti is not a man who simply happened to be at the right place at the right time in the Palestinian liberation struggle, but is a man of firm convictions and beliefs and who is capable of leading his people. That was made absolutely clear when he stood up in an Israeli court, raising his hands in chains and affirming that he did not recognise the jurisdiction of Israel over him or any of his people. He shocked the Israeli judges by declaring that the Israeli occupation forces were guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

By then, it also became known that he was using his time in Israeli detention on charges of murder to learn Hebrew and polish his English-language skills. He has displayed his skills in Hebrew while being on trial. Eventually, he was sentenced to five life terms in jail.

For many Palestinians, Barghouti is their natural leader. They have known him for many years as someone from among them, who has thrown stones at the Israeli army and who has opened fire at Israeli soldiers. That is a far cry from those "exiles" who returned to Palestine under the Oslo agreements.

Today, with Barghouti's endorsement and barring any last-minute surprises, Abbas is almost sure of winning the Jan.9 elections to Palestinian presidency.

While the deal was brokered by Palestinian cabinet minister Qaddoura Fares, who visited an Israeli jail in Beersheba on Friday to convince Barghouti to drop his campaign for presidency, Farouq Qaddoumi, head of the PLO's political department and Arafat successor as Fateh leader, is said to have played a major role in arranging it.

Abbas, who is now PLO chairman, and Qaddoumi is expected to meet in Damascus or Cairo this week to finalise the arrangement. The two were among the founders of Fateh along with Arafat and a few others in the late 50s, but they developed differences, particularly over the Oslo agreements and after Abbas tried to edge Qaddoumi out as Palestinian foreign minister during a four-month term he served as prime minister last year.

However, the two appeared to have buried the hatchet after Arafat's death: Hence Qaddoumi becoming Fateh leader and Abbas assuming PLO chairmanship.

Qaddoumi and Barghouti shared common views on the 1993 Oslo agreement and opposed amending the PLO charter that removed a clause calling for the elimination of the state of Israel. Both believe that recognising Israel as a legal entity in Palestine should have come only after Israel allowed the creation of an independent state for the Palestinians.

Barghouti's return to the West Bank in 1994 was natural since he was only going back home from where he was expelled only a few years earlier.

An important question that comes up is: Given a choice, who would Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon opt for as a "negotiating partner," Abbas or Barghouti?

Judging from Sharon's record, he would like to negotiate with Abbas but with Barghouti free and active on the sidelines. For, only then Sharon could put up a charade of talking peace with Abbas -- but presenting unacceptable terms -- with the dead certainty that Barghouti would step up armed resistance that would lead to a deadlock in the process.

That is one explanation that emerged from reports that followed Arafat's death early this month Israel was offering to release Barghouti in return for the US freeing convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard as well as Egypt freeing Azzam Azzam, an Israeli Druze jailed for spying for Israel in Egypt in 1997.

"The proposal is there in the pipeline," said a report in the Israeli press at that time. "Israel is ready to free Barghouti in return fro Pollard and Azzam. However, the US, Egypt and the Palestinians have to work out the details if they are so anxious for Barghouti's freedom."

While Egypt might agree to free Azzam, there strong opposition in the US against freeing Pollard, who was found to have given Israel important military intelligence data about the defensive and offensive military capabilities of the Soviet Union and Arab countries. He is serving a life term in the US.

Israel has implicitly acknowledged Pollard was its spy. It has given him Israeli nationality and has been lobbying the US administrations since Pollard was jailed 19 years ago for his release, but all successive presidents have refused to free him given the sensitivity of the issue for American voters.

Azzam was employed at an Israeli textile plant in Egypt in 1997 when he was arrested and charged with spying for Israel's Mossad intelligence service, using invisible ink hidden in dyed women's underwear. Israel has consistently denied he was a spy but worked hard for his release.

If Sharon were to release Barghouti under a hypothetical deal involving Pollard and Azzam, then the Palestinian armed struggle would only get revved up to new heights under Barghouti's leadership unless Sharon dropped his defiant refusal to accept international legitimacy as the basis for a solution to the Palestinian problem. Since Sharon does not seem to have any intention to shift his stand, the obviously result would be another deadlock.

Probably, Sharon would want that to happen if only to defend himself that he was ready for "negotiations" but the Palestinians asked for the sky and also continued armed attacks against Israelis and hence the deadlock.
That is a strong conclusion emerging from the scene. Otherwise, Sharon would not have allowed Fares and Arab Israeli legislator Jamal Sahalka to visit to visit Barghouti in the cell where he has been held in solitary confinement for 26 months. Sharon would definitely like to play one Palestinian against another while he consolidates his grip on Palestine and create new realities that could not be easily wiped out. That should be a constant source of concern and reason for vigilance for the Palestinian leadership.