Marwan Barghouti, a fiery young Palestinian leader, made it known Thursday that he is running for the late Yasser Arafat's position as head of the Palestinian Authority, defying the traditional leadership and scrambling the political picture ahead of the Jan. 9 presidential election.
Barghouti, 45, is challenging interim leader Mahmoud Abbas, 69, a pragmatist who appears to have the tacit support of Israel and the US. This sharpens a power struggle in the ruling Fatah movement, pitting the old guard of politicians, like Abbas, who returned with Arafat from exile in 1994, against the younger generation of activists who led two uprisings in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Arafat ruled Fatah for nearly 40 years.
Late Thursday, the Fatah Revolutionary Council endorsed the Abbas nomination. Palestinian official Tayeb Abdel Rahim said this was the final approval, making Abbas "the only candidate of the Fatah movement."
Defying his own party, Barghouti informed associates Thursday, through his lawyers, that he would run. He would have to stand as an independent, threatening a split in the Fatah vote that could even propel an outside candidate into the presidency.
Abdel Rahman Shomali, a Fatah official, said he would distribute a statement by Barghouti later. A top Fatah official, Amin Maqboul, also said he was informed of Barghouti's decision to run.
In a move to allow a free election, Israel will remove all roadblocks in the West Bank on Jan. 9, according to security officials speaking on condition of anonymity. As an alternative security measure, Israel will ban Palestinians from entering the country. Removal of the roadblocks is a key Palestinian demand.
The uprising leader is serving five life terms for his role in attacks on Israelis. Israel's leaders are insisting that Barghouti will remain in prison. This week Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom called him a "murderer." Barghouti's supporters have said they are counting on international pressure on Israel to free him.
A Palestinian official said late Thursday that Cabinet Minister Kadoura Fares, a Fatah leader, would visit Barghouti in prison yesterday.
Both Abbas and Barghouti support the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
The two differ on the uprising. Abbas has spoken out against violence and said the current uprising was a mistake, but Barghouti has justified attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza as legitimate resistance to occupation.
Barghouti was the West Bank leader of Fatah when he was captured in the city of Ramallah by Israeli forces in April 2002. He has been in Israeli custody ever since.
However, even his Israeli backers discerned a change in his tone after the current uprising began.
His public statements were more strident, encouraging resistance against the Israelis, and he refused to denounce attacks. During his trial, Israel charged that he was directly involved in deadly attacks, but Barghouti insisted he was a political activist not linked to violence.