Mass Murderers and Bomb Makers: The Prisoners Hamas Wants Israel to Free

Mass Murderers and Bomb Makers: The Prisoners Hamas Wants Israel to Free

On Monday, the U.N. Security Council approved its first resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza after the United States, which had previously vetoed such attempts, abstained from voting. Though the measure separately demanded the release of hostages Hamas abducted from Israel, it failed to condition the truce on their freedom—an omission Israeli officials say strengthened Hamas’ negotiating position and ultimately undermined progress in talks to reach a humanitarian ceasefire.

On the same day, Hamas rebuffed a U.S.-drafted and Israel-supported proposal for a temporary pause in fighting. In exchange for the safe return of 40 Hamas-held hostages, Israel had agreed to release 800 Palestinian prisoners—double the number previously floated—and allow thousands of civilians to return to northern Gaza. But negotiations in Doha, Qatar, have now stalled as Hamas hardens its demands.

In contrast to the temporary truce in November, which saw the release of hundreds of women and underage suspects from Israeli prison, Hamas now wants Israel to free prisoners serving life sentences for killing scores of civilians. Among them are the terror chiefs of multiple Palestinian resistance factions, including Hamas and its competitors.

At the top of Hamas’ wish list is Marwan Barghouti, a nationalist leader serving five life sentences for murdering Israelis and one of the most recognizable figures in Palestinian politics. The 64-year-old is a member of the Fatah faction, the political party that heads the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Barghouti’s popularity has persisted even throughout his two decades behind bars, in large part because of his affiliation with the late Yasser Arafat—the longtime leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization—and leadership during the Second Intifada. The organized wave of terrorist attacks between 2000 and 2005 killed more than 1,000 Israelis and disrupted the path to a two-state solution outlined in the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Renewed discussions about a prisoner release, together with international pushes for new Palestinian leadership, have brought Barghouti’s name back to the fore in recent months. A March poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) showed a surge in support for the imprisoned Fatah leader, with respondents in the West Bank and Gaza choosing him over both PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in a hypothetical presidential race.

“Barghouti is seen as someone who would not be reluctant to defend the interests of the Palestinian people through armed struggle, as he did during the Second Intifada,” Khalil Shikaki, director of the Ramallah-based PCPSR think tank, told The Dispatch. “That distinguishes him from many other secular nationalist leaders within his own political party.”

Barghouti’s violent reputation particularly sets him apart from Abbas, also a Fatah member, whom many Palestinians regard as an Israeli collaborator. But he’s also picked up followers from among Hamas’ support base in the West Bank, earning him the reputation of a unifier. Some Palestinians, amplified by Western media outlets, have hailed the terrorist leader as their movement’s “Nelson Mandela.”

So why would Hamas leaders want to free a potential political rival? “Because they are interested in being reintegrated into the Palestinian political system. They don’t want to be treated as a pariah,” Shikaki said. “In that respect, Barghouti is a very, very strong, solid ally. His release would certainly create new dynamics that would benefit Hamas considerably.”

Also on Hamas’ roster is Abdullah Barghouti (no relation to Marwan), one of Hamas’ most lethal bomb makers to date. The Kuwaiti-born terrorist was behind a spate of attacks on Israeli civilians during the Second Intifada, including a 2002 bombing at Hebrew University that killed five Americans and four others and a 2001 suicide bombing inside a Jerusalem Sbarro that killed 16 people, including seven children and a pregnant woman. He’s now serving 67 life sentences for the 66 deaths that have been tied directly to him.

“I knew there were more, but those were all we would be able to prove,” Mosab Hassan Yousef, a Hamas militant-turned-Israel Security Agency operative who helped Israel arrest scores of terrorists, wrote of Abdullah in his memoir Son of Hamas. “At his sentencing, he would express no remorse, blame Israel, and regret only that he had not had the opportunity to kill more Jews.”

Hamas has reportedly demanded the release of other key figures from the Second Intifada during the ongoing negotiations. One such terrorist, Hamas operative Abbas Al-Sayed, plotted some of the deadliest attacks of that period, including the 2002 bombing of a Passover celebration in Netanya that killed 30 civilians (several of them Holocaust survivors). Ibrahim Hamed, the former head of Hamas’ military wing in the West Bank, is serving 54 life sentences for his role in planning the spate of terrorist attacks. Ahmad Saa’dat—who from behind bars remains head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization—is serving a 30-year sentence for his involvement in the 2001 assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi.

To Yoni Ben-Menachem, an Israel-based Arab affairs expert, many of these names represent “red lines” for Israel, especially Marwan Barghouti. “He’s the symbol of terrorism in the Second Intifada,” Ben-Menachem told The Dispatch.

Along with the return of some of the most dangerous Palestinian inmates in Israeli custody, Hamas’ negotiators are now pressing for nothing short of a permanent ceasefire and Israel’s full withdrawal from the Strip. That the unrealistic demands came amid the U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire is no coincidence in Israel’s eyes.

“We had negotiators in Doha trying to get an agreement to release hostages, and it’s not surprising that Hamas decided to reject the latest proposal that was put forward by the Americans,” Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, who had previously been tapped to lead since-canceled meetings with U.S. officials in Washington this week, said Tuesday. “Why should they not reject it? They think they’re going to get a ceasefire without giving up the hostages, because that’s what the resolution said.”

Israeli officials and analysts are increasingly convinced Hamas and its leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, are no longer interested in a deal and are now playing for time in the hopes that building international pressure will thwart Israel’s war effort. As time goes by, Hamas is betting that its negotiating position will grow stronger.

“It’s just stalling. Sinwar wants to put the blame for the failure of the negotiations on Israel. Whenever Israel agrees to something, he puts up new demands,” Ben-Menachem said. “What he wants, Israel cannot give him. He wants to stay in power in Gaza. He wants to come out of the tunnels as the victorious hero that Israel could not defeat.”

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