Hamas is believed to be demanding the release of Marwan Barghouti – classed by Israel as a terrorist but viewed by many Palestinians as their Nelson Mandela – as the price of a lasting ceasefire in Gaza.
Negotiations to try to end the war could lead to freedom for the "best-known and most controversial" Palestinian political prisoner, said The Times. Barghouti, who was jailed for murder in 2002, is "the man a recent opinion poll suggested should be the territory's next president".
The demand "brings new attention" to the 64-year-old, "who plays a central role in Palestinian politics even after spending more than two decades behind bars", said The Associated Press. His release could "lay the groundwork" for his eventual election to political office.
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'Unifying pragmatist or terrorist mastermind'
Barghouti was a student leader at Birzeit University in the West Bank and was involved in popular protests at the time of the first Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, in 1987.
In the 1990s, he emerged as a prominent figure in Fatah – the movement led by Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas that runs the West Bank – rising to the position of general secretary. Described by The Times of Israel as Fatah's "terror chief", Barghouti is accused by Israel of having established the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (AMB), and is currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for his alleged role in deadly attacks during the second Intifada, in the early 2000s.
He is viewed by many Israelis as "the man who abandoned the peace process to lead the second intifada", said The Times, but his political role "was then and remains ambiguous".
Often described by Palestinians as the "Palestinian Mandela", he is seen as a "unifying pragmatist or a terrorist mastermind", depending on your political affiliation, said Israeli daily paper Haaretz.
Barghouti has maintained his high profile and influence during his 20 years behind bars, smuggling out letters, writing articles and being active in the prisoner movement. After a statement calling for support for Hamas in the current war was released in his name, his family claimed he was brutalised in prison, transferred to solitary confinement and held in the dark with loud music playing for days.
A future Palestinian president?
In demanding the release of Barghouti, Hamas's aims appear to be "twofold", said Business Insider – "increase public support for their party and recognise Barghouti's rare position as a unifier among Palestinians".
He still enjoys "widespread respect" and, crucially, "support among all Palestinian factions".
An opinion poll released in December showed that Barghouti remains the most popular politician among Palestinians. The survey also found a rise in support for Hamas, and an overwhelming rejection of the Western-backed Abbas, with nearly 90% saying he must resign.
Barghouti's appeal to the Palestinian population was explained by his son Arab. Speaking to The Times at his father's campaign office in Ramallah, capital of the West Bank, he said: "My father never made big promises, to build roads or schools or the best buildings. He is just someone from the Palestinian street who made the choice to dedicate his life to the struggle for the Palestinian cause."
Barghouti's advocates in the West tout his support for a two-state solution – in contrast to Hamas – and acceptance of the Oslo peace accords. And as a leader of Fatah, he represents the more moderate and secular wing of the Palestinian cause, in contrast to radical Islam of groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Freeing Barghouti is the "break glass in case of emergency" option for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Seth Mandel in Commentary. He is believed to be "both popular enough and moderate enough" to lead the Palestinian Authority after Abbas. But what freeing Barghouti would actually accomplish, said Mandel, "is the further destabilisation of the Palestinian Authority-ruled West Bank".
"Hamas thinks this is a great idea. The Israelis are unconvinced."
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