Capture of Barghouti is Israeli Coup, but Some Fear Palestinian Retaliation

There were some who saw an element of poetic justice in Israel’s capture of Palestinian militia leader Marwan Barghouti on the eve of Israel’s Remembrance Day for fallen soldiers.

Leader of the Fatah Party’s Tanzim militia, Barghouti, 42, has become a symbol — and coordinating force — of the Palestinian intifada against Israel, which has claimed the lives of 469 Israeli soldiers and civilians since it began in September 2000.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed that Barghouti would be tried for involvement in the murder of Israelis. He said Barghouti’s trial would “be one of the greatest achievements of Operation Defensive Wall,” the Israeli military campaign against terrorists in Palestinian cities that was launched at the end of March following a month of increasingly deadly suicide attacks.

When Sharon learned of Barghouti’s capture, the Israeli daily Ma’ariv reported, he told close associates that he would have preferred to receive Barghouti’s ashes in an urn. The reference was to Israel’s trial and conviction of Nazi Adolph Eichmann, who was tried and hung and whose ashes were then strewn outside Israel’s territorial waters.

With Palestinian groups already threatening retaliation, however, other observers suggested that Israel’s seizure of Barghouti and a subsequent trial would only strengthen his standing among Palestinians and bring more grief to Israel. The military wing of Hamas said Israel’s arrest of Barghouti had turned Israeli leaders, including Sharon, into legitimate targets.

Some senior Israeli security officials reportedly believe that instead of being put on trial, Barghouti should be expelled.

Political reaction to the capture was mixed.

Sport and Culture Minister Matan Vilnai of Labor said Barghouti’s arrest was proof of Israel’s commitment to track down those who attack its citizens.

Public Security Minister Uzi Landau of Likud said Barghouti should stay in prison “until the end of his life.”

Shinui Party Knesset member Tommy Lapid expressed support for Barghouti’s arrest and said he should be put on trial.

But, Lapid added, “I hope that Barghouti in custody will not cause us more grief than when Barghouti was free.”

Labor Party member Yossi Beilin warned that the arrest would dash any remaining chances for peace. He also noted that leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad were still free.

About one thing there was no debate: The April 15 capture of Barghouti in his Ramallah apartment hideout was a coup for Israeli intelligence and security forces.

Barghouti went underground when Israeli troops invaded Ramallah at the beginning of Operation Defensive Wall on March 29. He was wanted by Israel, which claimed that Barghouti was closely involved in planning, directing and financing terrorist attacks.

At one point, Barghouti was believed to have taken cover with other wanted Palestinians in the Ramallah-area office of the Palestinians’ West Bank security chief, Jibril Rajoub. When that group surrendered, however, Barghouti was not among them.

On April 15, Israeli security forces received a tip that Barghouti was hiding in a friend’s apartment in the Ramallah neighborhood of A-Tira, not far from Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s compound.

Israeli troops and special units quickly surrounded the building, calling on occupants to come out.

Most left of their free will. Following them, Barghouti’s nephew Ahmed, a Tanzim militant also wanted for terrorist activity, surrendered.

Ahmed Barghouti told investigators that his uncle had fled when he suspected Israeli security forces were closing in. Another resident sent back to the building said Barghouti was not there.

Not believing the claims, members of a special unit entered the building. At the same time, troops outside spotted Barghouti by one of the building’s windows, and Barghouti then gave himself up.

For months, even as it targeted other Palestinians who were organizing terrorist attacks, Israel declined to go after Barghouti because of his tremendous popular support.

As Shin Bet officials questioned Barghouti this week, he insisted he was a political figure and not a terrorist.

But the Israeli army described Barghouti as head of the Tanzim militia and founder of the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, a terrorist group that has carried out some of the most brutal attacks of recent months, killing scores of Israelis and wounding hundreds.

The head of Israeli army intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Aharon Ze’evi, said Barghouti was known to have directed, encouraged and financed terrorist activities, including the dispatch of suicide bombers.

Israeli security officials linked Barghouti to numerous attacks in which more than a dozen Israelis were killed, including a shooting attack at a Bat Mitzvah celebration in Hadera, a shooting spree on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road and a shooting at a Tel Aviv restaurant.

Israeli officials also want to examine Barghouti’s relationship with Arafat to determine how much Arafat knew about Tanzim terrorist attacks and how involved in them he was.

Documents confiscated during the anti-terror campaign show that funds Barghouti received, including allocations authorized by Arafat, were used to finance attacks by West Bank terror cells, the army says.

Once considered a possible moderate successor to Arafat, Barghouti’s views became more extreme in the intifada. Heading an association of various groups involved in the uprising, Barghouti evolved into an outspoken advocate of armed struggle to achieve Palestinian aims.

According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, it was Barghouti who recognized that Hamas and Islamic Jihad suicide bombings were gaining popularity even among secular Palestinians, and steered Tanzim toward the same methods.

“This is the intifada of peace. I’m serious. This intifada will lead to peace in the end,” Barghouti was quoted as saying earlier this year. “We need to escalate the conflict. It will be hard. Many of us will be killed, but there is no choice. Every one of us is willing to sacrifice himself.”

Barghouti also had no patience for Israel’s refusal to negotiate under fire. Not only was violence compatible with peace talks, he told the New York Times several months ago, it was the best way to ensure that Israel accepted Palestinian demands at the bargaining table.

Barghouti first became politically active in the Fatah youth movement in the 1970s. Later, at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, he served as head of the student council.

In the early 1980s Barghouti was arrested for terrorist activities and spent six years in Israeli jail, where he learned Hebrew. He was released in 1987 and deported to Jordan.

He remained politically active and ultimately joined Arafat and the PLO leadership in Tunis.

In 1994, in the wake of the Oslo accords, Barghouti returned to the West Bank and was elected to the Palestinian legislative council as a representative from the Ramallah district. But he was not a member of the Palestinian cabinet, and was critical of the Palestinian Authority’s rampant corruption.

Barghouti built popular support by organizing regional meetings of Fatah branches in the West Bank. Under his leadership, Barghouti transformed the Tanzim in the intifada from a kind of civil guard to a militia carrying out shooting and bombing attacks against Israelis.

At times, it also appeared that the Tanzim’s violent agenda under Barghouti challenged Arafat’s occasional calls for a cease-fire and demonstrated a power struggle between the two Palestinians.

But many Israelis believed that Arafat never was sincere when he called for cease-fires, and used the Tanzim to carry out terror attacks he could not sponsor directly.

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