04 Dec 2006 13:39:10 GMT
Israeli minister moots Barghouthi release in deal
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM, Dec 4 (Reuters) - Israel should consider freeing
jailed Palestinian lawmaker Marwan Barghouthi as part of a deal
that would return a captive soldier and curb violence in the West
Bank and Gaza, an Israeli cabinet minister said on Monday.
Israel has publicly ruled out clemency for Barghouthi, who
continues to be a top power-broker for the formerly dominant
Palestinian faction Fatah despite serving five life prison terms
for ordering deadly attacks in a 6-year-old Palestinian revolt.
But Environment Minister Gideon Ezra said Israel should
reconsider its policy if freeing Barghouthi would secure the
return of Corporal Gilad Shalit from the Gaza Strip and cement a
tentative truce declared last week in the tinderbox territory.
There has been growing speculation that Israel and its U.S. ally
could try to cultivate Barghouthi, who is very popular among
moderate Palestinians, as a potential counterweight to Hamas
Islamists that trounced Fatah in elections last January. Asked on
Israel Radio whether Barghouthi, 47, should be freed as has been
demanded by the Palestinian leadership, Ezra, a former security
chief, said: "The question is how big the (swap) deal would be,
and what the other side would promise."
"If the Palestinian Authority prevents arms smuggling in the
Philadelphi corridor (from Egypt to Gaza), then I am in favour,"
said Ezra. "If the Palestinian Authority promises to crush
terrorism, as it undertook to do, then I am in favour."
A spokeswoman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has been
searching for a way to break the diplomatic deadlock since the
recent Lebanon war forced him to shelve a planned unilateral
redeployment in the West Bank, played down Ezra's statements.
"The prime minister has made it very clear that this subject has
not come up in the government," said spokeswoman Miri Eisin.
Having agreed a surprise Gaza truce on Nov. 26 with moderate
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, Olmert called for a
renewed peace process and said he would be willing to free many
prisoners -- including some who have served lengthy terms.
BARGHOUTHI A POPULAR MODERATE
Barghouthi was captured by Israeli troops during a West Bank
sweep in 2002, and jailed two years later following a highly
publicised trial in an open criminal court in Tel Aviv.
He has denied Israeli charges of masterminding attacks by Fatah's
militant al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades which killed five people, but
has said Palestinians have the right to fight for independence in
territories captured by Israel in a 1967 war.
Unlike Fatah, Hamas advocates Israel's destruction, a stance that
has drawn a Western aid embargo since the Islamist group took
power in March. An internal Palestinian power struggle since then
has sparked fears of civil war.
Shalit's abduction by Hamas and other gunmen in a deadly June 25
raid across the Gaza border further stoked tensions.
Olmert at first rejected Hamas's demands for a prisoner swap and
ordered several military sweeps of Gaza, the first major
incursions by Israel since it quit the coastal strip last year.
But with no sign of Shalit, Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza an
almost daily occurrence, and international scrutiny on the
civilian toll from Israel's military operations mounting, Olmert
has recently signalled new flexibility.
Hamas wants 1,400 Palestinian prisoners, including leaders of
armed factions, freed in exchange for Shalit. Barghouthi's wife,
Fadwa, has said that his name appears on the list.
Hamas declined comment.
"Marwan Barghouthi is without a doubt someone who is important to
Fatah, and Fatah is on the ropes today and we should strengthen
Fatah if we want to strengthen Abu Mazen (Abbas)," Ezra told
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza)
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