The Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti is planning to stand for election for the presidency from his Israeli prison cell, according to his supporters.
"If there is an election, he intends to run like every other Palestinian leader and he would stand a good chance since he is so popular," the close supporter said.
Barghouti, a street-fighter turned politician who gained fame as one of the main leaders of the Palestinian uprising on the West Bank, came out well ahead of any of his rivals in a respected opinion poll in September.
If he won, it would represent a powerful propaganda coup: the elected leader of the Palestinians kept in an Israeli jail. His supporters hope that such a victory could act as a lever for his release but an Israeli government official said this week it will not free a man serving five life sentences for organizing attacks on Israelis.
Barghouti, 45, was one of the leaders in the West Bank of Fatah, the secular fighting and political organization and the dominant force in Palestinian life, during the first 18 months of the uprising until arrested by the Israelis when they occupied Ramallah in 2002. He is held in isolation in Beersheva.
His wife, Fadwa, said: "He spends 23 hours in his cell and one hour in a covered courtyard with his legs and hands chained. His health was bad before he went to prison and is worse now."
His only contact with the world is speaking through a peephole to his lawyer, who takes messages to the family and political contacts.
"I have not seen him for two and a half years," Fadwa, a lawyer who lives in Ramallah, said.
Barghouti, born and raised in the West Bank, is one of a new, younger generation of Palestinian politicians. His popularity comes mainly from his visible presence in the streets during fighting with the Israelis. That popularity increased with his defiance in the Israeli court trying him in Tel Aviv, which he refused to recognize.
According to a poll conducted by Bir Zeit university in September, Arafat received 46 percent support, with Barghouti on 12 percent, and two leaders of the Islamist organization Hamas, Mahmoud Azzahar and Ismaiel Haneyah, on 9 percent and 8 percent. The prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, and Mahmoud Abbas, the new chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, hovered around 1 percent. With Arafat removed from the poll and the question restricted to Barghouti and two other leaders, Barghouti scored 51 percent, in both the West Bank and Gaza.
The Israeli government wants Qureia or Abbas to succeed Arafat. An Israeli government official said that if the Palestinians voted overwhelmingly for Barghouti, Israel would take it as a sign they were not yet ready for peace.