(AP) RAMALLAH, West Bank – Jailed Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti declared his candidacy for president Wednesday, a stunning last-minute reversal that shook up Palestinian politics ahead of the Jan. 9 vote for Yasser Arafat’s replacement.
Adding to the uncertainty, the militant group Hamas said it would boycott the election. It was the first sign of open divisions between the interim Palestinian leadership and the Islamic opposition group since Arafat’s death Nov. 11.
The moves injected drama into what has been a smooth transition of power. Before Wednesday, interim leader Mahmoud Abbas managed to win pledges of unity — if not outright support — from the disparate Palestinian factions and seemed a shoo-in to win the presidency.
The fiery, charismatic Barghouti, who is serving five life terms in an Israeli prison for his role in deadly attacks, is far more popular among young Palestinians than the staid Abbas.
Last week, Barghouti sent a message from his prison cell saying that he would not pursue the presidency for the sake of unity in the ruling Fatah movement. But Wednesday, he abruptly changed his mind.
Cheered by supporters who shouted “With our blood and souls, we will redeem you, Marwan,” Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, dropped off his registration documents at the Palestinian election headquarters ahead of a midnight deadline. “I officially registered Marwan,” she told reporters. Earlier, the campaign paid a $3,000 deposit, associates said.
Abbas already has been nominated as Fatah’s presidential candidate, so Barghouti must run as an independent. But as a leading Fatah member, he would likely undermine Abbas’ prospects.
Barghouti, 45, represents the younger generation of Fatah that grew up in the West Bank and Gaza, while Abbas, 69, comes from the “old guard” of leaders who returned from exile with Arafat a decade ago.
Barghouti became a political activist in the 1970s, joining Arafat’s Fatah movement. He spent six years in Israeli jails — where he learned Hebrew — for his membership in Fatah, and was deported in 1987.
He was one of the first exiles to return seven years later under interim peace deals with Israel. Barghouti supported those accords, advocated a Palestinian state alongside Israel and had close ties to Israeli peace activists.
But when the Palestinian uprising broke out in September 2000, Barghouti used Arab satellite television to turn himself into the most prominent voice of the Palestinian resistance. Though he said he still supported a peaceful solution, Barghouti said force — including shooting attacks on Israelis — was justified to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israeli arrested Barghouti in 2002, accusing him of funneling money to militants and being involved in attacks that killed 26 Israelis. He was convicted of attacks leading to five deaths.
While Abbas and Barghouti both favor a negotiated settlement with Israel, an election victory for Barghouti would complicate matters. Israel has quietly embraced Abbas, whom it considers a pragmatist, and has ruled out freeing Barghouti.
However, because of his popularity, it might be easier for Barghouti to make the concessions needed to reach a peace deal with Israel.
Some Fatah members were skeptical about a Barghouti candidacy.
“How is he going to rule a nation while he is inside the jail?” asked Hani al-Hassan, the top Fatah official in the Gaza Strip.
“I know one thing: There is one candidate for Fatah and that is Mahmoud Abbas,” said Palestinian legislator Mohammed Hourani, a Barghouti contemporary.
Late Wednesday, a militant leader who could be seen as a natural Barghouti backer came out for Abbas instead.
Zakaria Zubeidi, the 29-year-old West Bank leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a violent group linked to Fatah, said he would back Abbas. “Barghouti … should resign from Fatah,” he told The Associated Press.
Abbas, who formally launched his campaign Wednesday in Ramallah, brushed off Hamas’ decision to boycott the election and signaled that he is ready to take action against the militants.
“Every nation has opposition groups, but there are also laws and institutions,” he said. “I am committed to having one authority and only one army.”
Abbas called for a renewal of peace talks with Israel and said the two sides would meet after the election to discuss the “road map” peace plan. “We must have a dialogue with the Israelis,” he said.
The peace plan calls for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state next year, but has been stalled since it was signed in June 2003.
Instead, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has pushed forward with a plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip and four small settlements in the West Bank next year.
Sharon’s internal problems threatened the pullout plan anew on Wednesday. Parliament voted against the state budget, and Sharon was scrambling to build a new governing coalition. If he fails and is forced to call elections, that could delay or scuttle the withdrawal.