Israeli minister proposes trading Barghouthi for captured soldier

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AFP) – An Israeli minister said on Tuesday his country should exchange jailed Palestinian Intifada leader Marwan Barghouthi for an Israeli soldier seized by Gaza fighters more than a year ago.

“Marwan Barghouthi has a good chance of becoming the next Palestinian leader,” Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, infrastructure minister and member of Israel’s powerful security Cabinet, told army radio.

“His release could allow the political negotiations to advance and bring about the liberation of Gilad Shalit,” the Israeli serviceman seized in a deadly cross-border raid by Palestinian fighters on June 25, 2006.

But a spokesman for the Islamist movement Hamas, which is currently holding Shalit in a secret location in the Gaza Strip, insisted it would stick to its demands to release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit.

“The conditions of any agreement have been made clear to the occupation government and it has not adhered to them, and so the case of Gilad Shalit will remain suspended,” Sami Abu Zuhri told AFP.

Israeli officials said an exchange for Shalit had been agreed with Hamas through Egyptian mediation but that the talks broke down after the Islamist movement seized control of Gaza in mid-June.

Barghouthi is the West Bank leader of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’ Fateh Party – the Islamists’ main rival – and is widely regarded as the inspiration behind the intifada that erupted in September 2000.

“All those who are thinking of Israel’s security realise that there is no alternative to liberating Marwan Barghouthi, as he is the strongman on the Palestinian side,” Ben-Eliezer said.

Barghouthi was arrested in 2002 and convicted in 2004 of five counts of murder and one of attempted murder resulting from three suicide attacks and an aborted attack. He is currently serving five life sentences.

His incarceration has not diminished his appeal on the Palestinian street. In January 2006, he was reelected to parliament and is widely regarded as a possible successor to Abbas. Ben Eliezer said Barghouthi’s conviction sho-uld not prevent Israel from holding talks with the charismatic leader. “For us he is an assassin, but [Palestinian legendary leader] Yasser Arafat was no less of an assassin, which did not prevent [the late Israeli premier] Yitzhak Rabin from extending his hand to him,” he said.

Arafat and Rabin signed the 1993 Oslo autonomy accords that established the Palestinian Authority.

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