Prisoners Say Only Heir Is Barghouti

Palestinian security detainees are waiting to hear what prisoner Marwan Barghouti has to say: What is his position on the emerging leadership? Does he intend to contend in the planned elections?

Palestinian security detainees are waiting to hear what prisoner Marwan Barghouti has to say: What is his position on the emerging leadership? Does he intend to contend in the planned elections?

According to a lawyer who met with prisoners at Nafha prison this week, the security detainees, particularly those belonging to Fatah, speak of Barghouti as the Palestinian people's new leader. They await his pronouncements as they waver between wanting to give the collective leadership now taking shape a chance and mistrusting it. In any case, as one lawyer overheard the security detainees say, any leadership that arises will not be deemed legitimate nor receive their support if it does not work on behalf of their release.

Barghouti associates said he receives constant updates through the media on Arafat's condition. He has refrained till now from making declarations through his confidants, including one who expects Barghouti to find a way to convey a political message today. In any event, the confidant said, Barghouti is known to support elections, deepening political pluralism, and rule of law.

Security detainees and Barghouti associates hope that Israel will scrutinize the public opinion surveys, which they feel prove that the Barghouti alone can compete with Hamas representatives planning to run for election. Barghouti himself has held back from announcing whether he intends to participate in elections either for president or for the Palestinian Legislative Council, although it is thought he will run.

Prisoners and confidants expressed hope yesterday that Barghouti will be released, perhaps through understandings with Egypt, because only his return to the political arena can thwart the strengthening of Hamas. They believe that Barghouti is the only person who can provide Mahmoud Abbas with the legitimacy of grass-roots support.

Meanwhile, three Fatah representatives at Ashkelon prison already have voiced support for the emerging leadership. Relatives who visited the prison yesterday said the prisoner representatives sent a letter yesterday (through the prison service commissioner) to Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra requesting a 48-hour furlough to participate in mourning ceremonies to be held for PA Chairman Yasser Arafat. They reportedly asked for permission to stay at Abbas' home in Ramallah and in the Muqata, "to encourage and strengthen the moderate Palestinian leadership headed by Abu Mazen in the immediate future." The letter also expressed the hope that shortly "a new leaf will be turned in relations between the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships."

A flyer put out by "the prisoner's club" on behalf of detainees at all prisons strikes a less conciliatory note. The flyer places responsibility for Arafat's condition on the government of Israel due to the lengthy siege it imposed on him at the Muqata. But responding to fears of anarchy, the flyer calls for bolstering the legitimacy of PLO institutions in the foreseeable future and not abandoning the Palestinian political arena to power centers and personal interest. The flyer calls for national unity, expressing the people's sovereignty through the ballot box, and expressing confidence in the Palestinians' ability to show responsibility and not fall into internal struggles.

Beyond taking an interest in developments at the top, the prisoners are asking themselves how changes will affect them in the post- Arafat era. Some prisoners claim they have heard from the Israel Prisons Service that prisoner releases are planned after the PA leader's death.

Differing reports have been coming in from various prisons regarding attitudes toward Arafat's condition. Some report prisoners are profoundly sad, others report apathy.