RAMALLAH, West Bank, Dec. 2 -- The last-minute candidacy of the jailed Palestinian firebrand Marwan Barghouti for president of the Palestinian Authority has exposed deep divisions within the dominant Fatah political movement and among Barghouti's supporters.
Barghouti, 45, who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison on terrorism-related charges, is considered the leader of the young guard of Fatah, the political movement of Yasser Arafat. Just hours before the deadline on Wednesday, his wife filed papers on his behalf to run as an independent in the Jan. 9 election. He joins nine other Palestinians in the race, including Fatah's nominee, Mahmoud Abbas, 69, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a former Palestinian prime minister who is the favorite of Fatah's old guard.
Baha Khedra spray-paints a mural of Barghouti at his studio in Gaza City. Barghouti, 45, who has taken a militant approach, is popular particularly among younger Palestinians.
(Hatem Moussa -- AP)
Barghouti said six days ago that he would not run, and threw his support to Abbas. By reversing that decision, he infuriated Fatah's senior leaders and threatened to divide the most powerful Palestinian political organization. Perhaps equally significant, his decision was reportedly opposed by his wife, Fadwa, and many of his most loyal lieutenants, some of whom said they would try to persuade Barghouti to drop out.
But one of his most trusted aides, Ahmed Ghnaim, said Barghouti, who enjoys deep grass-roots support and is ranked in many polls as the most popular Palestinian leader, wanted to make the election a referendum on continuing the four-year-old uprising against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Ghnaim said Barghouti, a founder of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Fatah that has conducted a suicide bombing campaign against Israel, decided last weekend that he would run. He was concerned that Abbas, an outspoken critic of Palestinian violence, and other leaders who came to power after Arafat's death three weeks ago were turning their backs on Arafat's legacy and favored ending the intifada, Ghnaim said.
Barghouti "wants to put the two choices in front of the Palestinian people in a very civilized and democratic way and let the people choose" whether to continue the uprising, Ghnaim said.
In a letter that Ghnaim said he received on Monday, Barghouti explained, "I will run to defend the legacy of the intifada, the resistance, the history of Fatah and the legacy of the martyr Yasser Arafat."
Saad Nimr, who is heading the campaign to get Barghouti released from prison, said Barghouti decided to run because of recent statements by U.S., European and Israeli officials claiming, as Nimr put it, that "the era of Yasser Arafat was the era of terror, and now we're finishing with that and coming to a new era when Palestinians will be forced to fight against each other."
He said Barghouti was particularly upset with recent comments by Abbas, commonly known as Abu Mazen, and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia suggesting that they favored collecting weapons from Palestinian militant groups and indicating "that there might be a campaign against the [Palestinian] resistance."
Nimr said Barghouti's wife and two close political allies, cabinet ministers Kadoura Fares and Jamil Tarifi, visited him in prison on Wednesday and tried to persuade him not to run. Hatem Abdel Kader, another Barghouti ally, told Israel's Haaretz newspaper that associates would keep trying to talk him out of running.
Barghouti's decision to run was harshly criticized by many associated with Fatah. Tayeb Abdul Rahim, a spokesman for Fatah's Central Committee -- the movement's highest body, which selected Abbas as its nominee -- called Barghouti's decision "an irresponsible act" that signaled his departure from the party. Ahmed Helles, the head of Fatah in the Gaza Strip, said in a telephone interview that Barghouti still could withdraw his candidacy. If he does not, "I expect measures to be taken against him," Helles said.
Zakaria Zbeida, a top leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the West Bank, said Barghouti should resign from Fatah, adding, "We have chosen Abu Mazen, and we will stick by this choice." Mohammed Horani, a Barghouti ally in the Palestinian parliament, said, "As far as I'm concerned, Fatah has spoken, and the nominee of Fatah is Abu Mazen."
Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian political analyst and pollster, said Barghouti was the clear favorite to win a presidential contest "if he decides to take it to the end." But it was more likely, he said, that Barghouti was jockeying to win freedom for himself and other Palestinians held by Israel, and to force political and electoral reform on Fatah. "If he gets what he wants from the Israelis and the old guard, he will withdraw from the race," Shikaki said, guaranteeing "that Abbas will win."
Israeli officials have said Barghouti will not be pardoned or released, and Nimr denied that Barghouti's candidacy was driven largely by his desire to get out of prison. "We don't think that Israel will release Marwan Barghouti," he said. "We think, on the contrary, that they will tighten his arrest conditions."
Sitting under a poster of Barghouti in handcuffs, from a photo taken at the time of his trial, his 38-year-old brother, Muqbal, said Barghouti's election from jail would send a powerful statement. "The message is to the whole world that put pressure on us to become democratic: that democracy has spoken, and it is the responsibility of the international community to solve this problem."
Correspondent Molly Moore and special correspondents Samuel Sockol and Sufian Taha contributed to this report.