Pressure mounts on Palestinian president after jailed Barghouti backs rivals

Jailed popular Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti (L) seen in this 2002 picture is backing challengers opposing Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas (R), in upcoming elections
Jailed popular Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti (L) seen in this 2002 picture is backing challengers opposing Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas (R), in upcoming elections Sven NACKSTRAND, Jamal ARURI AFP/File
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Jerusalem (AFP)

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas faced mounting pressure on Thursday after popular leader Marwan Barghouti, imprisoned by Israel, endorsed dissident candidates ahead of Palestinian elections next month.

Barghouti, who is serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli jail and is described by some supporters as the "Palestinian Mandela", has aligned with the "Freedom" list headed by Nasser al-Kidwa, a nephew of late Palestinian icon Yasser Arafat.

Kidwa was expelled from Abbas's secular Fatah movement after he said he planned to run for the Palestinian presidency.

His is one of two movements headed by former Fatah loyalists that will challenge the party in the parliamentary vote set for May 22, the first Palestinian polls in 15 years.

Barghouti, is not on the Freedom list, but his wife Fadwa is number two.

The Freedom party "is supported by Marwan Barghouti, and the proof of course is the presence of his wife" on the list, Kidwa told AFP.

"We had discussions... not with him directly but (with) many of his associates, supporters and family," he added.

The list was announced Wednesday, on the last day parties could submit candidates for the polls.

So far, Palestinian election officials have validated 13 party lists. All the approved lists will be published next week.

- Symbol of Freedom -

Barghouti, 61, was convicted nearly two decades ago of orchestrating deadly attacks against Israelis. He refused to recognise the Israeli court during his trial.

"To them (the Palestinians), they look at him not only as a symbol of freedom but also as a symbol for looking at themselves," said Palestinian peace activist Mohammad Dajani Daoudi, director of the Wasatia Academic Institute in Jerusalem.

"They feel they are in prison, he's in prison, so that's why their empathy and sympathy with him is much more than their sympathy or feelings with any other leader," he said.

There remains widespread speculation that Barghouti may mount a presidential run from prison.

A recent poll showed that 22 percent of Palestinians would support Barghouti as their next president.

The leader of the Hamas Islamist movement that controls Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, polled second with 14 percent support, followed by Abbas at 8 percent.

Abbas, 85, has been serving as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) since 2005. He called presidential elections for July 31 but has not yet said if he will run.

Another former Abbas ally, Mohammed Dahlan, served as the PA's security chief in the Gaza Strip before he was convicted of corruption and moved to Abu Dhabi.

From exile, Dahlan orchestrated the transfer of some 60,000 vaccine doses to Gaza, in a move aimed at boosting his profile in the Israeli-blockaded enclave where he was raised.

Dahlan announced his "Future" list on Monday, two weeks after accusing his ally-turned-rival Abbas of seeking to silence critics.

- Powerful rivals -

Fatah's divisions will likely strengthen Hamas, Dajani said.

"Hamas is running with one list, with organisation and with good funding from abroad, and as a result they stand much better chances to win these elections than others," he said.

The two parties have been bitterly divided since Hamas won a landslide victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections.

Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip a year later and threw out the PA forces, which were loyal to Fatah.

Since then, Hamas has ruled Gaza while Fatah controls the PA in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

An agreement between the competing movements to hold elections was seen as reconciliation step.

Both parties insist that Palestinians in Israel-annexed east Jerusalem be allowed to vote. Israel bans all Palestinian political activity in Jerusalem.

Hugh Lovatt, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, said Abbas might delay elections to avoid a potential disaster at the ballot box.

"This will be a unilateral decision by Abbas to keep the Fatah ship afloat. But ultimately such a decision is more likely to sink it," he wrote.