Prison Palestinian leader Barghouti shakes up planned parliamentary elections

Imprisoned Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti threw the May 22 parliamentary election into turmoil on Wednesday by announcing a rival list of candidates to run against his own Fatah party.

Marwan Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, registered the list hours before the deadline set by the Electoral Commission. Polls suggest it would split the vote for Fatah, possibly paving the way for another major Hamas victory. This increases the likelihood that Abbas will find a way to suspend the first Palestinian election in 15 years.

Barghouti, 61, a former militant commander in Fatah, is serving five life sentences in Israel following a 2004 terrorist conviction. But he is still a popular and charismatic leader, and by breaking with Abbas, he can reshape Palestinian politics and possibly replace him as president.

His entry reflects growing frustration with Abbas, who has chaired an increasingly authoritarian and unpopular Palestinian Authority that has failed to achieve national unity or promote Palestinian hopes for an independent state.

It is unclear how Barghouti’s rise would affect relations with Israel. Both he and Abbas want a Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, but no material peace talks have taken place in over a decade. It is unlikely that Israel will release Barghouti regardless of his political fortunes and may refuse to engage with a leader they see as a terrorist.

Abbas has decided on parliamentary and presidential elections for May and July this year, the first since 2006, when the Islamic militant Hamas won a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections. It triggered a crisis that led Hamas to take Gaza into Abbas’ forces the following year, leaving the West Bank and Gaza divided between rival governments.

Abbas decided on the election in January in a step that would help heal the division. It now remains to be seen whether the elections will actually be held, given the long-running battle between Fatah and Hamas – and the growing division within Fatah.

An opinion poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Investigation Research earlier this month showed that a separate list approved by Barghouti would split the Fatah vote and potentially receive more support than the official list.

“Barghouti running would dramatically change the result,” the center’s head Khalil Shikaki said last week when the results of the vote were published.

If Barghouti goes to the presidency in the elections scheduled for this summer, he would easily defeat both Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, according to the survey, which examined 1,200 Palestinians with a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Barghouti, 61, has flirted with a run before but eventually stopped supporting Abbas, who was elected to a four-year term in 2005 but has remained in power ever since.

This time, Barghouti will work with Nasser al-Kidwa, the 67-year-old nephew of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, for a list called “Freedom.” Al-Kidwa was kicked out of Fatah in early March after announcing he would run on his own list.

“We hope this list will lead to democracy,” said Fadwa Barghouti. “We registered this list and we hope it will succeed.”

Earlier, Fatah official Jibril Rajoub left the party’s official list.

He said the election would be held in “all the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem”, which Israel annexed and considered part of its capital. He also predicted that the election would lead to a national unity government that would end the shortage.

“We are trying to win the elections in the spirit of democracy and we will respect the results,” he added.

Another list, known as “Future”, has been registered by supporters of Mohammed Dahlan, a former senior Fatah official who fought with Abbas and is now based in the United Arab Emirates. He is also expected to drain support from Fatah.

The fracturing of Fatah severely weakens Abbas and could pave the way for the much more disciplined and unified Hamas – which is on a list – to emerge as the largest Palestinian party. Abbas could postpone or suspend the election, but it would risk distrust from the United States and European nations, which provide vital support to the Palestinian Authority and have long demanded free and fair elections.

East Jerusalem could provide an excuse to cancel or postpone the election. Israel is preventing the PA from operating there and has not said whether it will allow voting in the city.

Tensions are already rising in the occupied West Bank. In the Qalandia refugee camp near Jerusalem, dozens of Fatah-armed automatic weapons fired into the air Wednesday night to protest the expected composition of the official party list, which they said did not represent them.

Barghouti led Fatah’s militant wing during the intifada, or uprising, which broke out in 2000 during the dissolution of the peace process. He condemned attacks on civilians in Israel, although Israel says he is responsible for civilian deaths.

The uprising saw the Palestinians carry out suicide bombings and other attacks on Israeli civilians when the Israeli military launched deadly races in the West Bank and Gaza. More than 6,000 Palestinians and more than 1,000 Israelis were killed, and unrest eased after 2005.

Israeli troops arrested Barghouti in 2002, at the height of the uprising, and two years later a military court convicted him of orchestrating attacks that killed five people, giving him the same number of life sentences. Barghouti refused to recognize the Israeli military court or offer any defense.

Many Palestinians see Barghouti as a revolutionary leader in the form of Nelson Mandela or Fidel Castro, but abolished by the corruption of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority or the long-running feud between Fatah and Hamas. As a long-imprisoned militant, he is considered to have sacrificed his freedom for the cause of Palestinian independence.

Behind bars, he has continued to call for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, land seized by Israel during the war in 1967. Surveys show that he is the most popular Palestinian leader, with support from the entire political spectrum.

In 2017, Barghouti led more than 1,500 prisoners in a 40-day hunger strike to demand better conditions in Israeli prisons. Most Palestinians regard prisoners held by Israel as heroes for their cause, and the strike strengthened Barghouti’s image.

Israel considers Barghouti and other Palestinians imprisoned for security crimes to be terrorists and has given no indication that it would release him. He was not part of a group of more than 1,000 high-profile prisoners released in 2011 in an agreement with Hamas in exchange for an Israeli soldier captured by militants and held in Gaza for more than five years.