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Fatah leader feared, admired

©Associated Press
April 16, 2002

JERUSALEM -- Marwan Barghouti is feared by many Israelis as a remorseless killer but has attained the status of folk hero to most young Palestinians.

His fiery speeches and almost daily media interviews -- including several he gave Israeli television in Hebrew -- made him a defining face of 18 months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. Barghouti, who was arrested for the first time when he was only 18, learned Hebrew in Israeli prisons.

Barghouti served six years in prison for membership in Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, then an illegal organization. Deported in 1987, he returned seven years later under an interim Palestinian-Israeli peace deal. For a time, he was known as a supporter of the peace negotiations with Israel. That changed with the renewed fighting after September 2000, and on Monday the 41-year-old Barghouti was captured by Israel forces in Ramallah.

In November, Barghouti said he considers any Israeli in the West Bank and Gaza a legitimate target for attack.

In August 2001, Barghouti said Palestinians must use violence. "The Palestinian people has one alternative, one option," he told reporters, "to continue this intifada (uprising) to put an end to Israeli occupation."

Such uncompromising rhetoric earned him the respect and admiration of young Palestinians angered by Arafat's failure to deliver an independent state after nearly a decade of on-and-off peace talks.

Barghouti's detention is a major security coup for Israel, which could use it to counter international pressure to its military offensive in the West Bank.

Interviewed on CNN, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that if Israel had withdrawn from Ramallah, Barghouti "would have been free and he'd be able to continue."

The Israeli military campaign to crush Palestinian militias followed a series of Palestinian suicide bombings that killed scores of Israelis.

Last Friday, a suicide bomber killed six Israelis and wounded nearly 90 in Jerusalem. The Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade took responsibility. Israel says Barghouti is the leader of the militia, which is linked to Arafat's Fatah faction.

Barghouti is a Fatah leader, but has never acknowledged a formal relationship with the Al-Aqsa militia.

He has denied targeting civilians.

"While I, and the Fatah movement to which I belong, strongly oppose attacks and the targeting of civilians inside Israel, our future neighbor, I reserve the right to protect myself, to resist the Israeli occupation of my country and to fight for my freedom," Barghouti wrote in a January commentary in the Washington Post.

At times during the past 18 months, Barghouti appeared to publicly disagree with Arafat over the direction of the Palestinian uprising. But Barghouti's acumen -- he never mentioned the Palestinian leader by name when criticizing his policies -- and popularity ensured his political survival.

Barghouti's wife, Fadwa, fighting back tears at her Ramallah home, warned Israel against harming her husband and said: "There are a thousand Marwan Barghoutis who will continue his mission."

-- Information from Knight Ridder was used in this report.

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