Ten days ago, Alexandria resident Abdelhaleem Ashqar decided that the recent death of Yasser Arafat had presented him with an opportunity he could not pass up: becoming a candidate in next month's Palestinian presidential elections.
But in addition to the long commute, there were a few obstacles to this dream.
Abdelhaleem Ashqar hugs his wife, Asma, after he and Muhammad Salah, right, leave a Chicago jail in September for house arrest.
(Abel Uribe -- Chicago Tribune Via AP)
First, the 46-year-old Ashqar was not a registered voter in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which he'd left 15 years ago to come to the United States as a graduate student.
More of a problem was that Ashqar is confined to his Alexandria home while he awaits trial in this country on federal racketeering charges.
But Ashqar pushed ahead anyway. And yesterday, the former Howard University professor was informed by the Palestinian elections committee that he has been accepted as one of 10 official candidates in the Jan. 9 vote.
"I hope that I'll win, and I'm going to do whatever it takes to win," said Ashqar, who is running as an independent. "I hope to capitalize on the votes of independents and those who want real change."
Ashqar was indicted in August with two others on racketeering conspiracy charges in Chicago for allegedly raising millions of dollars for the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas. No date has been set for the trial.
Randall A. Samborn, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago, said he had no comment on Ashqar's candidacy. The terms of Ashqar's release on a $2.6 million bond prohibit him from leaving his home but do not appear to bar him from running for office.
Ashqar has pleaded not guilty to the charges. His attorney, Thomas Durkin, called them "preposterous" and "an improper attempt to criminalize political conduct in an international political dispute," referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ashqar denies ever being a member of Hamas, which the United States designated a terrorist organization in 1995 for carrying out suicide bombings in Israel.
However, he has been jailed twice for refusing to testify before U.S. grand juries investigating Hamas, and then protested those detentions by going on hunger strikes. He told one judge that testifying would violate his religious and political beliefs and betray colleagues.
Ashqar said he learned Monday that the Palestinian electoral authorities had accepted his voter registration under a provision for imprisoned Palestinians.
Indeed, one of Ashqar's biggest rivals is Marwan Barghouti, 45, who is serving five life terms in an Israel jail for his role in leading violent attacks on Israeli settlers and soldiers.
Barghouti is widely regarded as one of the two top contenders to win the election; the other is Mahmoud Abbas.