December 2, 2004
Barghouti Release Would Reward Terror
In May 2004, Marwan Barghouti, one of the leaders of Fatah in the West Bank and head of the Tanzim organization, was sentenced to five consecutive life terms, plus another 40 years, by an Israeli civil court that found him guilty of five cases of murder of innocent citizens, attempted murder and membership in a terror organization.
With the demise of Yasser Arafat and little support in the Palestinian street for Mahmoud Abbas, calls have been heard to consider releasing Barghouti as a means of stabilizing the new Palestinian Authority regime. My contention is that releasing Barghouti would essentially mean rewarding and thus further encouraging terrorism.
Barghouti rose to public attention as a leader of the first Palestinian intifada (1987-1993) and an alternative leadership to Arafat's Tunis-based elite. In the 1990s, Barghouti was considered to be a pragmatist, and some even considered him a supporter of the peace process with Israel.
But after the terror campaign began in 2000, he became acting commander of Hallelei El-Aksa, Fatah's military arm, and an outspoken supporter of terror as a means of attaining the Palestinians' strategic objectives. Barghouti played an active role, including organizing and financing terrorist acts. Brutal attacks against men, women and children were carried out at his direct or indirect behest.
In his trial, Barghouti was accused of dozens of other charges of murder and planning terrorist acts, but due to intelligence security considerations, these charges were dismissed for lack of evidence. Nevertheless, the court unequivocally ruled that all of these acts had been carried out with his support, making use of funds and armaments he had made available, and therefore he bore moral responsibility for them.
In light of the upcoming elections for head of the Palestinian Authority and the concern that Abbas lacks sufficient support from the street necessary to ensure stability, Barghouti is often discussed as an alternative. Some analysts claim that only Barghouti can prevent Hamas from strengthening its position and provide Abbas with the legitimization and popular support he needs to reignite the peace process.
Barghouti's release may indeed produce positive short-term consequences from Israel's viewpoint by propping up a regime headed by Abbas, who is considered a moderate. But is this boon worth the likely long-term damage to the interests of both Israel and the United States in their resolute war against terror and terrorists who have no compunctions about killing men, women and children?
Barghouti's proposed release is analogous to Yigal Amir, the assassin of Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, expressing remorse for his actions and in exchange for his release from prison, promising to become a public spokesman against political extremism and against political assassination. It is inconceivable that anyone in Israel would even contemplate such an absurd proposal seriously.
Barghouti's release could also serve as an eye-opening lesson for terrorists such as Osama bin Laden: If a man whose guilt has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt is released, terrorism must pay off.
Thus, there is no room for leniency motivated by short-term political considerations when engaging in today's brutal battle against world terrorism.
Finally, despite Arafat's exit from the stage, the road to agreement and reconciliation is long and arduous. What is to prevent Barghouti -- who chose the path of terror when the results from the political route were not satisfactory to him and still considers violence to be the most effective means of ending the occupation -- from making the same choice again if future negotiations hit snags?
Amira Schiff is a doctoral candidate in the political studies department at Bar-Ilan University. She is currently writing her dissertation on the prenegotiation process in the Israeli-Palestinian and the Cypriot conflicts. This op-ed and the one above are part of a debate series initiated by The Center for Israel Studies at The University of Judaism.