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Marwan Barghouti:  For Some - A Murderer, For Others - The Best Hope for Peace


To many Israelis, he is a murderer guilty of attacks on Jews during the Palestinian uprising of 2000. To his Palestinian supporters, he is the best one to lead his people to freedom. Marwan Barghouti is serving five life sentences for the murders of four Israelis and a Greek monk. Last month, in absentia, he won a seat on the Central Committee of Fatah, at the party's first congress in 20 years. The meeting held special importance for the future of Fatah, which rules the West Bank. Palestinians have been calling for Barghouti's release - but so have some center-left politicians in Israel who want him to be part of a prisoner exchange.

To Shmuel Landau, Marwan Barghouti represents many things, but not peace.

Every day for the past eight years, Landau has come to mourn his 17-year-old son Ronen, shot at this exact place, while the two were riding in a car.

He blames Barghouti for the killing. "The terrorists, the soldiers of Barghouti, the killers, they opened heavy fire on us," he recalls, "Ronen who was sitting next to me got the bullet from the back. It went through his liver and he died on the spot."

Israel arrested Marwan Barghouti in 2002 and sentenced him to five life terms for ordering at least 37 attacks on Israelis.

Even from prison, Marwan Barghouti looms large.

Qassam Barghouti is Marwan's son. "My father is a hero in my eyes. He is a hero in his people's eyes. He is a very great person and a very great leader," Qassam says, "He has given his whole life, he has given his own freedom, to help the Palestinians have their freedom."

In Barghouti's West Bank village, Kobar, many people echo those sentiments.

"This man [Barghouti] has walked in the right direction," Hadid Abu Awad says, "far from giving up the rights and the land. He was a fighter from the beginning."

From this prison, Barghouti led his campaign for a seat on Fatah's central committee and a short-lived bid for the Palestinian presidency four years ago.

Talk of his possible release in a prisoner exchange has touched off a bitter debate in Israel.

"He will do what he knows how to do: Kill innocent people," Meir Indor, Almagor Terror Victims Association said.

Some Israeli leftists see Barghouti as a moderate and the best hope for peace.

But some question how someone who is serving five life sentences for murder can be called a moderate. Yehuda Ben Meir is with the Institute of National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. "Prior to the outbreak of the terror activities in late 2000, which is also known as the Second Intifada, Mr. Barghouti was involved in the peace process which began with the Oslo accords in 1993," Meir recalls, "Mr. Barghouti had personal relationships with many Israeli politicians, and many other Israelis. They met together, and indeed in those meetings that they had, in those contacts that he had, he expressed himself as someone who wants to reach a peace settlement and someone who is against terrorism."

Barghouti also has the respect of militants, including Hamas, and Palestinians believe he could unite Palestinian factions - and bring peace with Israel.

Qassam Barghouti was also jailed and spent months with his father in the same prison cell. As for the violence blamed on Marwan Barghouti, he says it is a cost of the conflict.

"This is suffering [on] both sides," Qassam says, "Wars always have people that suffer. Of course, there's a price for killing Palestinians. We pay a price. They pay a price."

Shmuel Landau is not convinced that releasing Marwan Barghouti will bring peace. "I think of him just as I thought of Arafat. They told us at the time that Arafat was the only one who would bring peace," he said.

Landau says he has paid a heavy price for believing there can be peace with former militants. And he, for one, does not think Barghouti should get a second chance.

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