Palestinian Leader is Sent to Prison, but Will Barghouti Be There for Long?

It may have been Marwan Barghouti’s final moment in the public eye, so the Palestinian leader and convicted murderer made the most of it. “Our people will prevail,” he told Tel Aviv District Court on Sunday, shrugging off the 165-year prison sentence just handed him. “I don’t care if I get life behind bars. My day of liberty will come when the occupation ends.”

Barghouti’s words were the latest salvo in the defiant political riff that has become his routine in his almost two-year-long trial.

Despite the sentence, many Israelis believe that Barghouti, a leader of the Palestinian uprising against Israeli civilians, might one day be freed for political reasons.

In May, Barghouti, a Palestinian legislator and West Bank leader of Fatah, the political faction of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, was found guilty of orchestrating gun ambushes by the Al-Aksa Brigade that killed five people. The brigade is the terrorist arm of ! the Fatah movement.

Though Barghouti refused to recognize Israel’s jurisdiction in the cases after being captured by Israeli troops in April 2002, Barghouti did mount a political defense.

In impromptu speeches in Arabic, English and fluent Hebrew, which he learned while serving a previous sentence in an Israeli jail, the 45-year-old Palestinian denied involvement in terrorist violence while defending violence as legitimate means of battle in the Palestinian intifada against Israel.

His argument did little to sway the Tel Aviv District Court’s three-judge panel, which found him guilty of involvement in five terrorist attacks; the panel also cleared him in connection with 21 other killings.

For many, the question of whether Barghouti deserved the sentence of five consecutive 25-year jail terms for murder — plus another 40 years for ordering a failed Jerusalem car bombing and belonging to a terrorist organization — quickly became secondary to the question of what! Israel gained or lost by his incarceration.

On the one hand, most Israelis view the trial as fair, particularly since Barghouti was cleared of 21 killings. But many are wondering why Israel has prosecuted Barghouti while leaving Arafat untouched in his West Bank compound.

After Barghouti’s conviction last month, Israeli Justice Minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid said Israel could one day put Arafat on trial in a similar manner.

But some analysts see a different succession in the works — not of Arafat taking the stand after Barghouti, but of Barghouti taking up the mantle of Palestinian leadership after Arafat’s gone.

“Sitting in jail has made Barghouti indisputably popular and famous, and Palestinian polls have long shown him as second only to Arafat in terms of public support,” Ha’aretz’s Danny Rubinstein noted.

According to his family and supporters, Barghouti has no intention of appealing the verdict or asking for a reduction of the sentence.

But many Israeli left wingers suggest that officials will end up reducing Barghout! i’s jail time just to make sure that Islamic fundamentalists do not fill the political vacuum after Arafat is gone from the scene.

After the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Barghouti became a proponent of the two-state solution envisaged by the Oslo peace process. Israel would regard the Fatah leader as a far more attractive alternative to Hamas or Islamic Jihad.

There are precedents for Jerusalem to free Barghouti for political purposes. Thousands of Palestinian terrorists, many convicted of murder, have been freed in Middle East deals that Israel felt were strategically necessary.

The most famous of these was that of the late Hamas founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who was jailed for murder in 1989 but had his life sentence commuted eight years later when Israel released him as a goodwill gesture after a botched assassination of a Hamas figure by Mossad agents in Jordan.

But Yassin, unlike Barghouti, was tried in a closed security court that kept public scru! tiny at bay. The very publicity surrounding Barghouti’s trial, which t ook place in a civilian court, could hamper any future attempts at clemency.

“I hope that he will stay in jail and won’t be let out of the back door in a political agreement,” Nadine Passentin, an activist with the Victims of Arab Terror group, said outside the courtroom.

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