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The Middle East

Israel Arrests the Leader of Arafat Faction

Mideast: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lauds the capture of Fatah chief Marwan Barghouti and vows a trial. Palestinians warn of repercussions.

April 16, 2002|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Israeli special forces arrested Marwan Barghouti, the leader of Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction and the man Israel holds responsible for dozens of deadly attacks on Israelis, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday.

Barghouti is the highest-ranking official arrested during Israel's 18-day military assault on Palestinian towns and villages. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has said the campaign is meant to crush Palestinian militias, praised the arrest and said Barghouti will be put on trial.

But West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub warned that "killing or humiliating [Barghouti] will bring catastrophes for Israel and will expand the circle of violence."

In a separate operation, Israeli troops arrested Jamal Tawil, head of the military wing of Hamas, the militant Islamic organization, in Beitunia, near Ramallah. Tawil reportedly was arrested in an apartment hide-out and was taken to an undisclosed location.

The pudgy, diminutive Barghouti is one of the few Palestinian leaders who enjoy a mass following among young Palestinians. Long after he became one of Israel's most wanted men, he remained a familiar figure at the front of Palestinian funeral marches and public rallies. He traveled with bodyguards but said he feared neither capture nor assassination by Israeli forces. He was widely viewed among Palestinians as an incorruptible figure.

Israel accuses Barghouti, once regarded as a pragmatist who strongly supported the Oslo peace accords, of leading the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia linked to Fatah. Founded by Arafat, Fatah is the most powerful Palestinian political movement.

Barghouti denies that he is a militia leader but has repeatedly praised attacks on Israelis, saying they are necessary to compel Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the dismantling of Jewish settlements in those areas.

Right-wing Israeli lawmaker Michael Kleiner called for Barghouti to be brought speedily to trial before a military court, where, Kleiner said, he hoped Barghouti would receive the death penalty.

But Yossi Beilin, a dovish former justice minister for Israel, said any prolonged detention of Barghouti, an elected member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, "might push the conflict into a darker alley."

Palestinian activist and legislator Hussam Khader, a leader of militants in the West Bank city of Nablus who worked closely with Barghouti, said his arrest is "a painful blow in the soft belly of the intifada." Khader warned that putting Barghouti on trial in Israel would "have dangerous repercussions."

Barghouti, he said, "has a lot of power on the ground and is one of the best-equipped people to bring back the trust of the Palestinian people in peace and to bring back Palestinians to the negotiating table in the future."

Barghouti, 41, has sometimes clashed with Arafat but was also often at the Palestinian Authority president's side and was sometimes mentioned as a possible successor.

Israeli security sources said Barghouti was captured in the home of another Fatah activist, Ziad abu Ain, who was also arrested, along with Barghouti's nephew and aide, Ahmed Barghouti. Marwan Barghouti reportedly was taken to Jerusalem, where he was said to be under interrogation by the General Security Service, or Shin Bet.

Implicated in Strikes by Militias

"We said that this operation in the West Bank is to arrest the heads of the terrorist organizations, to cut off the head of the snake," Raanan Gissin, Sharon's spokesman, said in a telephone interview. "We are there to dismantle these terrorist organizations. We have arrested a killer who sent the Tanzim [militia] to kill Israelis."

Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, the army chief of staff, said Monday that Israel has arrested 5,000 Palestinians since its forces swept into every major Palestinian town except Jericho in an offensive launched March 29 after a series of deadly suicide bombings inside Israel. Mofaz said 1,200 of those arrested were militants who had participated in or planned attacks.

Barghouti rose to prominence during the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli military rule in the 1980s, as a student activist at Birzeit University. He spent six years in Israeli jails and was eventually deported. He learned to speak fluent Hebrew during his incarceration and developed contacts with many Israeli peace activists and politicians after he returned to the West Bank when Israel recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1993 Oslo accords.

For months after the second intifada erupted in September 2000, he was regularly interviewed by Israeli media, saying he still supported the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Arrest Warrant Follows Attacks on Israelis

Even as Israel's position toward the Palestinians hardened, Barghouti said he believed that Palestinians were close to achieving their goal of ending Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

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