Analysis: Who's afraid of Marwan Barghouti?

Barghouti was once regarded by Yasser Arafat and his veteran colleagues as a troublemaker.

barghouti in handcuffs88 (photo credit: )
barghouti in handcuffs88
(photo credit: )
By demanding the release of jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti in return for IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, Hamas has succeeded in creating turmoil among the Fatah top brass in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Some Fatah leaders are not only concerned that such a move would boost Hamas's popularity on the street and even among Fatah cadres, but that Barghouti, once free, would pose a threat to their position. Barghouti, a prominent representative of the Fatah's "young guard," was once regarded by Yasser Arafat and his veteran colleagues as a troublemaker. A former student leader known for his charisma, Barghouti was elected in 1996 as a representative of the Ramallah district in the Palestinian Legislative Council. He soon became one of the chief critics of rampant corruption in the Palestinian Authority and did not hesitate, on several occasions, to openly criticize Arafat and the "old guard." Barghouti succeeded in rallying behind him hundreds of disgruntled Fatah activists, particularly in the West Bank. Many of these grassroots activists began challenging Arafat and the Fatah leaders who returned with him from exile after the Oslo Accords were signed. Many Palestinians began viewing Barghouti as a potential successor to Arafat, especially after the eruption of the latest intifada in September 2000. Arab and Israeli media were quick to name him "leader of the intifada," a role he happily accepted. Some of Barghouti's associates are convinced that his arrest by the IDF was part of a plot by Arafat's closest allies. They argue that Arafat wanted to get rid of Barghouti because of his rising popularity and his recurring criticism of corruption and mismanagement. Barghouti, who has been in prison for five years, is said to be very angry with the current Fatah leadership, especially since the party's defeat in the January 2006 parliamentary election. Barghouti was placed at the head of the Fatah list with the hope that he would attract a large number of voters in his capacity as a prisoner in Israel. He maintains that Fatah lost the election because of its failure to implement major reforms and get rid of all the icons of financial corruption. Barghouti's return to the Palestinian political arena at this stage is likely to cause headaches for many Fatah leaders. Fatah Chief Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is perceived by many of his constituents as a weak leader, and Barghouti's release will further undermine his status. Many of Arafat's former cronies, who are still holding senior positions in the PA, also have good reason to worry if Barghouti returns to Ramallah. On the other hand, Barghouti also has rivals among the "young guard" Fatah operatives who have exploited his absence to establish bases of power in the West Bank. One of these is Muhammad Dahlan, who in the past few years has managed to win the support of hundreds of Fatah gunmen and activists in the West Bank. Dahlan's aides on Tuesday strongly denied reports that he and other Fatah leaders had asked Israel not to release Barghouti for fear that he might jeopardize their standing and instigate unrest in Fatah. But sources close to Barghouti were not quick to buy the denial. "One day, when Marwan is free, we will finally know the identity of those who were part of the conspiracy against him and the Palestinian people," the sources said. "The next few days will tell who's afraid of Marwan." And as the bickering inside Fatah continues, Hamas is about to score more points on the Palestinian street by taking credit for the possible release of Barghouti and hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.