Former Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti appeared in Jerusalem's Magistrate Court on Wednesday to testify in the lawsuit filed by the family of Esther Kleiman, a resident of Neveh Tsuf who was killed in a gunfire attack in 2002 northwest of Ramallah.
Barghouti, who is likely to become the next Palestinian President, was convicted by the Israeli justice system of five counts of murder – four Israelis and a Greek monk - during the second intifada. There is no question he supported and encouraged violence.
Barghouti is considered a senior Tanzim member (Fatah's armed wing) and was in close contact with members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades through his assistant and nephew, Ahmad Barghouti (a French national).
Yet Barghouti's involvement in past terror attacks does not change the fact that in light of the political developments on the Palestinian side – the possible reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and especially the lack of contenders against President Mahmoud Abbas – Barghouti remains the only Fatah member who could inherit Abbas' place when the time comes.
Kleiman's family turned to a U.S. court asking the Palestinian Authority to pay millions of dollars in compensation for its alleged responsibility for the murder. Bargouti was brought to court on Wednesday in order to testify over ties between the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, yet as expected he refused to cooperate with the court and declined to testify.
The court hearing provided Bargouti with a rare opportunity to communicate with the Palestinian – and the Israeli public. One of the most important messages he conveyed to the many journalists surrounding him was that an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines and the establishment of a Palestinian state will bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the past, Barghouti spearheaded the Fatah faction that called for terrorist attacks against Israeli targets in the West Bank, and from January 2002 he even supported attacks within the Green Line. Like many Palestinians, Barghouti drew inspiration from Hezbollah, which forced Israel to retreat from southern Lebanon in May 2000, and thought that adopting the Shiite group's tactics will cause Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian territories.
However, in recent years Barghouti admitted that the Palestinians made a grave mistake by turning to terrorism. In countless interviews he said he supports "popular resistance" – that is, unarmed resistance.
Israelis will probably claim these are nothing more than tactical statements meant to expedite his release from prison. Whether this claim is right or not, Israel faces a greater problem in the near future: the Tanzim leader's intention to run for president, and likelihood he will get elected. According to all public opinion polls conducted in recent years, Barghouti is the only Fatah member who can easily beat any Hamas contender. In fact, the only scenario that can harm his chances to be elected is if Abbas decides to run again.
Yet Abbas has declared time and time again that he has no such plan, and that when presidential elections are held Fatah must find a new nominee. Among Fatah's leadership there is no one besides Barghouti that can unite the movement and beat Hamas. Barghouti himself hasn’t denied he intends to do so, yet on Wednesday he claimed that he will decide after elections are announced.
However, some of the people close to Barghouti have no doubt he intends to run for president, even if it means being elected while still behind bars. He also understands that after the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap – in which he was not included – his only chance of being released is to be elected president. Israel will have a hard time dealing with the international pressure to release an imprisoned president.
There is still no date for elections in the Palestinian territories. There is also no guarantee Abbas will not run again, despite his statements. But if nothing unexpected happens, "prisoner number one" will become "citizen number one" of the Palestinian Authority.
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