Israel arrests most wanted man in suicide campaign

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The Independent Online

Israeli soldiers captured one of the most significant leaders of the Palestinian intifada yesterday. Marwan Barghouti, a close aide of Yasser Arafat and one of Israel's most wanted men, was detained at a house in Ramallah.

Mr Barghouti is the head of Mr Arafat's Fatah organisation in the West Bank, and is believed to be behind several shooting attacks on Israelis and suicide bombings.

It has long been thought the Israeli authorities wanted to assassinate Mr Barghouti. An Israeli missile attack on his convoy narrowly missed him in August last year and recently he has been in hiding. Yesterday he appeared to have been taken into custody unharmed from the house of a Fatah official, Ziad Abu Ain, who was also picked up in Ramallah.

Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, confirmed the detention of Mr Barghouti along with his aide and relative Ahmed Barghouti. The Israeli army said a force of infantry, armour and elite commandos surrounded the house and ordered those inside to come out. After most of the occupants left, the commandos went in and arrested Mr Barghouti. Israel Radio claimed Mr Barghouti initially told the soldiers in Hebrew: "I know you've come for me." But he refused to come out.

Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian security chief in the West Bank, warned Israel yesterday not to harm Mr Barghouti. "Killing him or humiliating him will bring catastrophes for Israel and will expand the circle of violence," he said. Mr Barghouti once said: "I hope they don't assassinate me because I would be sorry for the tens of Israelis who will be killed in reaction to that."

This man of war, who some consider to be a symbol of Palestine resistance to occupation, was once one of the leading Palestinian exponents of peace with Israel and a key figure in winning Palestinian support for the Oslo accords.

In the past he was seen by the Israeli left wing as a Palestinian to do business with. At one time, some Israelis were even talking of him as an alternative to Yasser Arafat. He has spoken out against the dismal human rights record of Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority, and attacked the way it is riddled with corruption. But being set up as an alternative leader to the 74-year-old Mr Arafat is an idea Mr Barghouti, 41, has avoided, in public at least.

Mr Barghouti speaks fluent Hebrew, a legacy of six years in Israeli prisons. He became involved in Middle Eastern politics as a student, later becoming a militant. He is one of few figures from the original Palestinian intifada who survived as political players, after Mr Arafat moved in his cronies from his days in exile in Tunis.

Mr Barghouti spent the first intifada in his own exile, in Jordan, but was heavily involved in organising Palestinian resistance. He pushed hard for the dialogue with Israel that led to the Oslo accords but has said he believes the peace process died with Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who was assassinated for the deal he made with the Palestinians.

He was present when Ariel Sharon made his ill-omened visit to the al-Aqsa mosque, which ignited the present intifada, and quickly rose to become one of the most public leaders of the uprising. Israel has accused him of inciting violence against them and of having blood on his hands.

He had spoken dismissively of Israel's onslaught on the West Bank. "Sharon has no plan," he said. "He just pulled out his last card: he entered and recaptured the Palestinian cities. And what happened? Did the tanks in Bethlehem stop the attacks in French Hill? Did the tanks in Nablus stop the attackers in Hadera? We have decided Sharon will not bring you security, and we have succeeded. It's been 274 days since he was elected, and what has happened? Is there security?"

Mr Barghouti's power base lies not so much in his relation with Mr Arafat's elite as in his popular grassroots support. That means his threats of what may happen if he were to be assassinated may not be idle. Israel will welcome his capture to divert the world's attention from the horror of Jenin now being uncovered. What remains to be seen is what Israel intends to do with a man many Israelis once regarded as a partner for peace, but who has become one of the faces of war.