Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah politician who turned Tanzim from a civil guard into a West Bank militia that undertook suicide bombings against Israelis, was captured yesterday by a combined Egoz and Duvdevan operation in Ramallah, not far from his apartment.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer both congratulated the army on tracking down Barghouti, who had gone into hiding two-and-a-half weeks ago. Now the two will have to decide whether Barghouti will stand trial or be deported. Sharon last night said he wants to see Barghouti put on trial. Channel One reported last night that Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein was investigating options for putting Barghouti on trial.
Some senior security officers last night were recommending that Barghouti be deported. With his arrest, which went peacefully, soldiers throughout the territories were on high alert against possible kidnappings by Barghouti supporters.
Israel charges that Barghouti's leadership of the Tanzim - a Fatah political organization comprised mostly of young people first used as a type of civil guard in the Palestinian Authority but, as the intifada dragged on, became a prominent militia undertaking terrorist attacks on Israelis - turned the group into a terror machine.
Barghouti, once a passionate pro-peace Palestinian politician, may not have pulled any triggers, but he organized and arranged Tanzim's financing. Arrested with his nephew Ahmed, considered a key leader of Tanzim's military wing, Barghouti was in the hands of the Shin Bet last night in Jerusalem and was likely being interrogated.
Security sources said that among the documents the IDF found in its raids on various Ramallah offices were Barghouti memos showing his direct involvement in arranging terrorist attacks, including attacks in Hadera, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, responsible for 14 deaths. While Ahmed Barghouti served as his driver and bodyguard, he is also considered responsible for helping perpetrate attacks on IDF checkpoints in the Ramallah area that claimed 17 Israeli lives.
From student activist to Fatah leader
Short, stocky, and a fast talker in both Arabic and Hebrew, Barghouti, 43, is a member of a prominent West Bank family. Born in a village north of Ramallah, Barghouti began his political career as a student activist at Bir Zeit University in the mid-1980s.
At the beginning of the first intifada in 1987, Bir Zeit was the scene of many demonstrations, and Barghouti was arrested several times. Like many Palestinian political activists, he learned fluent Hebrew in jail and began a habit of starting his day by reading the Israeli press.
Considered an instigator and organizer of the intifada at the time, Israel eventually deported Barghouti to Jordan. He made his way to Tunisia where he began working for the PLO, eventually rising to a position near Yasser Arafat.
With the Oslo Accords, Barghouti was one of the first PLO officials to return to the territories, taking up residence in Ramallah and speaking out in favor of a peace deal with Israel.
He ran for election to the Palestinian parliament, winning a Ramallah district seat. But he was not given an executive role in the PA government, nor was he invited to join the PA cabinet, the PLO executive or the negotiating team with Israel. Nonetheless, throughout the 1990s, he was a prominent proponent for dialogue with Israelis, meeting often with journalists, Israeli politicians from the left and peace groups.
Without an executive position, Barghouti turned to building a core of political supporters inside Fatah. Throughout 1998, he scoured party branch offices organizing local elections for party institutions. He also organized a series of regional conventions of party activists, with the largest in Ramallah in March 1999, drawing 4,500 delegates and a keynote speech by Arafat.
In his own speech at that convention, Barghouti said there were three things that counted in the Palestinian struggle for independence: Tanzim, Tanzim, Tanzim. He built the Tanzim (the organization) in the local party branches, drawing its membership from young people who were not given government jobs or jobs in the PA security apparatus. Barghouti organized them into a kind of civil guard, providing some basic training and a mission to patrol neighborhoods against crime and to serve as a party militia.
From 1997 to 1999, the Tanzim focused on corruption in the PA, holding protest rallies against perceived bureaucratic injustices and corrupt officials. In some parts of the West Bank, especially in Ramallah, there were frontal confrontations between Tanzim activists and the Palestinian security services.
Barghouti also had opponents within Fatah. Most of the party members from Nablus opposed his leadership, preferring Balata refugee camp leader Husam Hader. In Ramallah, too, he had an opponent, Hussein al Sheikh. Barghouti was elected secretary general of the Fatah in the West Bank, and al Sheikh was given a titular role as a Tanzim leader.
It was Barghouti who recognized that the suicide bombing campaigns by the Hamas and Islamic Jihad were winning the two Islamic fundamentalist groups popularity in the Palestinian street. A committed secularist, Barghouti sought to challenge that popularity with similar Tanzim "sacrifices" - first shooting attacks inside Israeli towns in which the shooters were certain to die and then suicide bombings. Tanzim quickly superseded the popularity of the fundamentalist groups.
Barghouti ran his operations from a small, unassuming office in his apartment in the center of Ramallah. He has no taste for formality and ceremony, and aside from a gold watch, displayed none of the ostentatious attributes of power common in the territories. His popularity in the streets of Ramallah and elsewhere in the West Bank was evident wherever he went.
Among the Palestinian parliamentarians, Barghouti was perhaps the most outspoken against corruption, and in recent years, he advocated an ever-increasing tough line in negotiations with the Israelis. As recently as early this year, he published an article in The New York Times stating that he believed in peace with Israel - if the Israeli occupation ends, and promising to end the violence with an end to the occupation.
Barghouti's popularity sometimes irked Arafat, since it appeared the Tanzim leader was heading toward challenging Arafat for the leadership of the PA. Barghouti, however, was never known to speak out publicly against Arafat, even while Arafat at times publicly expressed anger with Barghouti, most notably in an interview with Channel One's Oded Granot. When asked about Barghouti's militant leadership of Tanzim violating Arafat's own cease-fire calls, a visibly angry Arafat shot back that Barghouti was not in charge. But Barghouti's Tanzim in recent months indeed set an agenda of violence that was at odds with the PA leadership's self-proclaimed efforts at reaching a cease-fire.
Warnings - and calls for the death penalty
Palestinian chief negotiator Sa'eb Erekat last night called on Israel to free Barghouti, charging that the arrest created a "serious obstacle" to the effort to restore calm, and that the PA regards Israel as responsible for Barghouti's well being.
Former justice minister Yossi Beilin called Barghouti's arrest "one achievement too many," noting that while Barghouti is under arrest, "leaders of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad go free." He warned the arrest could "lead the conflict into even darker corners, and called on Israel to release Barghouti at its own initiative and quickly."
MK Yosef Lapid of Shinui said that while he believes Barghouti should have been arrested and put on trial, he hopes that "Barghouti in prison won't mean more trouble for Israel than Barghouti free."
MK Michael Kleiner of Herut called for Barghouti to be put on trial and served the death penalty. Coalition whip Ze'ev Boim of Likud called for "a public trial."
MK Avshalom Vilan of Meretz said that the damage in capturing Barghouti will far outweigh the advantages, warning that the move will start a new cycle of violence. Hadash issued a statement calling on Israel to release Barghouti.
Fatah's military wing last night warned that if Barghouti is harmed, the organization will target the prime minister and the chief of staff. "We know how to reach their homes," said the statement, which also warned the United States that if Barghouti is harmed, its embassies will be targeted overseas.