PA says Barghouti release could divide Fatah

Palestinian Authority warns jailed Tanzim leader not to criticize leadership if he is set free by Israel.

Marwan Barghouti 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Marwan Barghouti 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The Palestinian Authority has warned jailed Fatah operative Marwan Barghouti not to criticize President Mahmoud Abbas or the veteran leadership of Fatah when he is released from prison, a Fatah official said on Wednesday. The official told The Jerusalem Post that the warning was relayed to Barghouti, who is serving five life terms in prison for five murders, by Hussein a-Sheikh, a senior Fatah official who is close to Abbas. Meanwhile, a leaflet distributed in Ramallah by Fatah called for removing PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad and PLO official Yasser Abed Rabbo from power. The leaflet accused the two of seeking to gain control of Fatah. Earlier this week, Sheikh met with Barghouti in prison for nearly three hours. He reportedly warned Barghouti not to make any critical remarks about the PA leadership when he is released. The meeting took place against a backdrop of reports suggesting that Israel was about to release Barghouti as a "gesture" to Abbas. According to the reports, Israel prefers to free Barghouti this way, and not as part of a prisoner exchange with Hamas, to prevent the Islamist movement from taking credit for his release. The hope in Israel is that letting Barghouti go will boost Abbas and the "moderate" leaders of the PA in the West Bank. But Abbas and some of his top aides are obviously nervous about the possibility that Barghouti may soon return to Ramallah. Their main fear is that Barghouti, a long-time critic of financial corruption in the PA and the old-guard leadership of Fatah, will exploit the media attention to voice his views about Abbas and his aides. In the message that was relayed to Barghouti, the PA leadership stressed that his release would be the result of Abbas's efforts and pressure on Israel, and not because his name appears on the list of prisoners that Hamas is demanding in return for St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit. The message also reminded Barghouti of the damage he caused Fatah when he decided to challenge Abbas in the presidential election that was held in January 2005. Then, Barghouti was forced to drop his candidacy after coming under heavy pressure from Abbas and old-guard Fatah leaders, who continue to maintain that he was partially responsible for the divisions in Fatah that brought Hamas to power a year later. Abbas is also concerned that Barghouti will use his close personal ties with some Hamas leaders to undermine the veteran Fatah leadership. According to the Fatah official, even as he sits in prison Barghouti is exchanging messages with Khaled Mashaal, the Damascus-based leader of Hamas, and Osama Hamdan, the movement's representative in Lebanon. Barghouti's release would also likely agitate the power struggle between the young guard and the old guard in Fatah. As a representative of the young guard, Barghouti has long been demanding major reforms in Fatah, which has failed to hold internal elections for two decades. In recent weeks, Barghouti has also voiced criticism of Abbas's failure to convene the sixth conference of Fatah - a move that could result in internal elections and certainly see the rise of Barghouti and his friends to power. The Fatah "Revolutionary Council," a key decision-making body of the movement, met in Ramallah earlier this week in yet another attempt to reach an agreement on convening the long-delayed conference. At the meeting, several young guard representatives threatened to resign unless their demand to convene the parley as soon as possible was met. Muhammad Hourani, member of the council and the PLO ambassador to Algeria, said the council decided that the conference would be held "no later than April 15 this year." But his announcement was received with skepticism by several Fatah members who pointed out that this was not the first time a date had been set for convening the conference. At the meeting, the Fatah leaders decided to establish a Fatah-run satellite TV station in a bid to improve the movement's image in the eyes of the Palestinian public and to counter Hamas's TV broadcasts. In a separate development, a PA official confirmed that Qatar had invited Abbas to visit Doha. Relations between the PA and Qatar have been strained following accusations that the emirate was supporting Hamas. Last month, Abbas refused to attend an Arab summit in Doha to discuss Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. The Qataris said then that Abbas told them he was afraid that he would be punished - apparently by the US and Israel - if he came to the gathering. In response, Qatar invited leaders of Hamas and other radical factions such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. The PA is also upset with Qatar because its popular TV network, Al-Jazeera, has over the past few years openly sided with Hamas in its power struggle with Fatah.