Elusive leader fans Palestinian flames

Defiant Arafat aide sees no room for compromise in uprising against Israel

November 19, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Marwan Barghouti still occasionally leads bands of youths to the Ayosh Junction to hurl rocks at Israeli soldiers, one of the rituals of the 13-month Palestinian uprising.

On the day marking the movement's first anniversary, in September, he stood out of range of the rubber bullets and tear gas fired by Israeli troops but close enough to provide a swarm of television crews the perfect backdrop of soldiers firing guns at children armed with stones.

"I think the Palestinians are willing to pay more of a price for their liberty," Barghouti said into the microphones, calling for the insurrection to continue while angrily waving away questions that the uprising had tired itself out.

Barghouti has long been at the movement's forefront, one of the leaders who decided early on to escalate the resistance from rock-throwing to gunfire, which transformed a popular uprising into a guerrilla war.

He is a volatile combination of intellect and arrogance, a rising star whose influence appears limited even as his public profile grows. Amid signs that the uprising has run its course, with little gained beyond rising casualties, Barghouti stands defiant -- a schooled expert in public discourse who still believes violence will pave the way to a Palestinian state.

The uprising is at a turning point, with its leaders having declared a cease-fire on Sept. 19, and top aides to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat reportedly conceding in private that they are seeking a way to bring the conflict to an end.

Each side accuses the other of escalating tensions that have rendered the cease-fire useless -- the Palestinians by failing to arrest suspected terrorists, and the Israelis for invading West Bank cities and continuing to assassinate militants.

Barghouti controls a faction in Arafat's party, which gives him a heightened stature within the political structure. That he so publicly flouts the cease-fire orders shows that Arafat may be losing control even of his lieutenants.

Col. Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian security chief for the West Bank, said arresting Barghouti is out of the question. But he conceded that the local leader is among those who "have to be persuaded" to stop the violence.

The Israeli army claims that not a shot is fired on the West Bank without Barghouti's knowledge or approval. It is an exaggerated assertion, but one that shows the degree to which Israeli officials portray him as a dangerous rebel leader orchestrating armed rebellions that repeatedly undermine peace.

His group has claimed responsibility for killing two Israeli civilians in the past two weeks. The Israeli army has demanded his arrest, accused him of dispatching a young gunman who killed a Greek monk he mistook for a Jewish settler, and then nearly killed him in a missile strike on a caravan of cars.

Even Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in an interview with Newsweek in October, said that Arafat "has some terrible people around him, like Barghouti."

Barghouti, a lawmaker credited with persuading Palestinians to go along with a series of peace initiatives last year, was once considered a moderate. He talked regularly in fluent Hebrew with right-wing Israeli politicians.

His friends maintain that Barghouti became angry at Israel's military actions and its campaign of building settlements while negotiating land deals. Dismiss him, they warn, and the Israelis risk alienating young Palestinians as upset with Israel as they are disenchanted with their own leaders.

"Israelis don't understand that it is in people like Barghouti that they will find the staunchest supporters of peace on both sides," said Sari Nusseibeh, the chief Palestine Liberation Organization representative in East Jerusalem.

"He is angry with the Israeli side for not giving us what we assumed we would get and what we think is fair," Nusseibeh said. "And he is angry with the Palestinian Authority for not giving what we deserve -- openness, frankness and no corruption."

Albert Aghazarian, a professor and spokesman for Birzeit University who remembers Barghouti as a smooth-talking student who usually won his arguments, said that he "was a central part of the debate. He was a player. But he forgot that it's not the politicians who run Israel. The army runs Israel."

Barghouti's media exposure -- which began when he claimed the television cameras at the Ayosh Junction -- made him a household name across the Middle East. But his influence as a politician appears limited to his home city of Ramallah just outside Jerusalem.

Seen by some as a threat to Arafat's reign and by others as a loyal soldier whose job is to say publicly what Arafat believes in private, Barghouti has become an enigma to even his closest associates.

The Palestinian leadership, the Israeli newspaper Kol Ha'ir says, is afraid to include his name in opinion polls because "no one dares examine how popular he is."

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