Barguti, the most popular Palestinian prisoner, challenges President Abbas's old guard at the polls | International

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Palestinian leader Marwan Barguti, before the Tel Aviv court that tried him in 2004.Reuters Photographer / Reuters

The leader of the Second Intifada, Marwan Barguti, has spent half of his 61 years behind bars or in exile. From prison, he remains the favorite of the Palestinian street. Sentenced in 2004 by an Israeli court to five life sentences plus another 40 years in prison, he is now challenging the old guard of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, 86, after presenting an independent candidacy for the legislative elections on May 22, the first held simultaneously in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in 15 years.

The split led by the most popular Palestinian prisoner threatens to permanently fracture the ruling Fatah party, led by Abbas, a leader widely questioned by civil society and the younger generations. Barguti has teamed up with dissident Naser al Kidwa, the nephew of historical leader Yasir Arafat who was expelled from the organization last month, in a bid to renew the secular nationalist party. Mohamed Dahlan, another former Fatah official who broke with the leadership and went into exile in the United Arab Emirates a decade ago, has also presented his own list.

The Hamas movement, which groups Palestinian Islamism into a monolithic bloc, is thus looming as the foreseeable winner of the legislative elections. It will be a reissue of the 2006 elections, which triggered the schism between the Palestinian political factions and a fratricidal battle that led to the takeover of Gaza by the Islamist militias.

But Barguti does not aim to contest hegemony in the Palestinian Legislative Council (Parliament). Aspire to succeed the veteran rais Abbas – elected in 2005 and who has not returned to the polls – in the presidential elections convened on July 31. If he manages to be released from prison – something highly unlikely for Israel – and to lead the presidential regime of the Palestinian Authority, he will be in a position to remove from power the old guard of Fatah, which has lost popular support due to authoritarian policies. submission to Israeli security dictates and corruption.

The image of Bargouti on West Bank murals, with his iconic gesture of his hands cuffed over his head showing the victory sign with his fingers, symbolizes for many Palestinians popular resistance in the face of more than half a century of Israeli occupation. A poll by the Palestinian Center for Political and Electoral Research predicts the victory of the charismatic prisoner not only over President Abbas, but also against Hamas's top leader, Ismail Haniya.

Fawda Ibrahim, wife of Palestinian leader Marwan Barguti, presents her husband's candidacy on Wednesday to the Palestinian Central Election Commission in Ramallah, West Bank.
Fawda Ibrahim, wife of Palestinian leader Marwan Barguti, presents her husband's candidacy on Wednesday to the Palestinian Central Election Commission in Ramallah, West Bank.Nasser Nasser / AP

The prisoner-candidate is married to lawyer Fadwa Ibrahim, with whom he has four children. His wife was precisely the one in charge of presenting the electoral list baptized with the name of Freedom before the Palestinian Central Electoral Commission, a few hours before the legal deadline, with these words: "We hope that this candidacy will lead us towards democracy."

The leader of the Second Intifada was born in Kobar, a village near Ramallah. He was arrested for the first time by the Israeli security forces at the age of 15. While finishing high school in prison, he began to stand out in the ranks of Fatah, the party founded by Arafat. He could not finish the History career. He was deported in 1987, at the beginning of the First Intifada. He finally graduated in 1994, upon his return from exile, on the Birzeit campus (north of Ramallah), after the Oslo Peace Accords.

The jail was the true university of Bargouti. "I was back in prison, leading a hunger strike, when my first child was born," he wrote in a letter published by The New York Times in 2017, when he led another voluntary fasting protest of more than 1,500 Palestinian prisoners. "He is now a man of more than 30 years and I am still here," he explained from the Hadarim prison (in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area), where he is still interned.

“Calling Barguti a political leader is like calling Bashar el Asad a pediatrician. They are terrorists and murderers, "said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the time, without taking into consideration that the Syrian president is actually an ophthalmologist. Israel maintains that the leader of the Al Aqsa Intifada (2000-2005), in which more than 6,000 Palestinians and a thousand Israelis were killed, was the head of the Tanzim, an armed wing of Fatah. It holds him responsible for ordering attacks against Israelis during the revolt. Captured by the Army in Ramallah in 2002, he was tried by a civil court, before which Barguti gave up his defense as he did not recognize his legitimacy.

The rais Abbas called the legislative and presidential elections in Palestine by surprise in January after three decades without having called the polls. The rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas came after the departure of Republican Donald Trump from the White House, who broke relations with the Palestinians. Democratic President Joe Biden has been in favor of the resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians with US mediation, which have remained paralyzed since 2014.

"Pressure from the US and the European Union has prompted Abbas to call the elections," Palestinian electoral analyst Dajani Daudi said on Thursday in a teleconference with foreign journalists. "But the main reason has been the push of the Palestinian street, of a society that wants a change," he added. A poll by the Palestinian Center for Political and Electoral Research shows that three out of four citizens want one-time elections, while two out of three want the veteran president to withdraw from the political scene.

The pretext of the vote in East Jerusalem

"These elections, however, will be conditional because they will be held under Israeli occupation," Daudi said. "If Israel does not allow voting to take place in East Jerusalem, it may be a pretext for Abbas to cancel the election call."

Skepticism about the holding of the elections has become widespread among Palestinians. Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayeh has called on Israel to facilitate voting in East Jerusalem, annexed since 1980 to the Jewish state. The Hebrew Government vetoes all Palestinian political activity in a territory that it considers to be its exclusive sovereignty. The pandemic has also added other obstacles.

The electoral observer mission of the European Union – requested by the Palestinian Authority to guarantee "credible, inclusive and transparent" elections – has for now closed the passage to the territories occupied across the borders by Israel. The Netanyahu government alleges that the travel restrictions imposed by the covid prevent the trip from being made. The insistence of the Brussels representatives to inspect the voting process in East Jerusalem, however, is presented as the main obstacle to the EU mission.

"There is nothing that can move the emotions (of the Palestinians) more than imagining the liberation of Bargouti like that experienced by an admired freedom fighter in a South African prison in 1994. Nelson Mandela was also sentenced to life for terrorism," he argued. this Thursday the Israeli columnist Gideon Levy in the daily Haaretz, before concluding: "Bargouti represents the only option that inspires hope to the dying Palestinian people and to the corpse of the peace process."


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