Egypt’s release today of Israeli businessman and accused spy Azzam Azzam is connected to a deal that may also free convicted terrorist and Palestinian Authority presidential candidate Marwan Barghouti, a senior Palestinian diplomatic source told WorldNetDaily.
The source, who is part of Barghouti rival Mahmoud Abbas’ presidential campaign and who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Azzam’s release was negotiated by Israel several months ago with the help of Egypt’s intelligence chief Omar Suleiman during ongoing discussions about Egypt’s role in possibly assuming security control of the Gaza Strip after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal plan is implemented next year.
The source said Azzam’s release is part of a deal that is meant to ultimately free Barghouti, the founder of the terrorist group Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, who announced last week his candidacy for PA president. Barghouti was recently sentenced in Israel to five life terms for planning gun ambushes and a suicide bombing.
Azzam, a textile engineer accused by Egypt of spying for Israel, was freed this morning reportedly for six Egyptian students being held by Israel in a deal that has been heralded as a warming of relations between the two countries. The students had sneaked into Israel in August and were arrested on suspicion they tried to kidnap Israeli soldiers and commandeer a tank.
“[Azzam’s] release is part of a campaign that is supposed to free Barghouti,” said the source. “Azzam has been held by Egypt as a significant bargaining chip. No one should believe he was freed for a few low level students.”
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz denied Azzam’s release was connected to the release of the Egyptian students, saying the timing of the two events was a “coincidence.” Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, however, later contradicted him, calling the two events “one deal.”
Thousands of people celebrated in Israel’s streets today as Azzam arrived in his home village of Maghar in Galilee.
The freed prisoner phoned Sharon to thank him for securing his release.
“Mr. Prime Minister, thank you very much, I love you very much and I don’t know how to express this,” Azzam told Sharon.
“I don’t have the words to thank you for your determination. I told my brothers that if I’m not released while Arik Sharon is prime minister, I would never be released. I am fortunate and proud to have been born in Israel,” Azzam said.
There have been reports the past few weeks of diplomatic talks about a three-way prisoner exchange deal that would release Azzam, and also involve Israel releasing Barghouti and America releasing Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.
Israeli officials said dozens of Palestinian prisoners would be released soon as a “goodwill gesture” toward the future Palestinian leadership. The prisoners, they said, would not include convicted terrorists.
Even with most in Jerusalem officially dismissing the possibility of releasing Barghouti, Israeli Interior Minister Avraham Poraz said, “We are looking for a partner for the Gaza withdrawal. It seems that this will have to include releasing prisoners … [perhaps even] including Barghouti.”
The freeing of Azzam has been connected many times to Pollard. Pollard’s release was a central component of the 1998 Wye River Summit, and was to coincide with Egypt freeing Azzam. When Pollard was discussed again at the Camp David peace summit in 2000, there were reports Egypt might free Azzam.
Pollard told WND he is “completely opposed” to the possibility of being released from prison in a deal that would also release Barghouti, whom he refers to as “a mass murderer of Jews.”
Pollard accuses Israel of grooming Barghouti to succeed the late PA leader Yasser Arafat, holding a series of clandestine meetings with Barghouti throughout his imprisonment.
“Officially, Israel insists it will never free Marwan Barghouti. He is a murderer sentenced to multiple life sentences. Freeing him, they claim, would undermine the rule of law. Unofficially, sources, including one very close to the prime minister, admit that Israel has been grooming Barghouti in prison to be the next leader of the Palestinian people,” said Pollard.
Pollard says that “when news of the proposed three-way deal broke, my close contacts began to investigate, and learned important things from reliable sources in the U.S. and Israel.”
“It is an open secret in Israel that top officials have been secretly meeting with Barghouti throughout his incarceration. He is taken out of his prison cell and brought to clandestine locations for these meetings, to enlist his help in promoting various initiatives with the Palestinians, such as cease-fires. These secret sessions are part of the ‘grooming’ process,” says Pollard.
Barghouti late last week decided to take back his earlier pledge to abstain from running in the upcoming PA elections, announcing his candidacy for president as an independent.
Reports list Barghouti as the widely favored candidate for PA president, and his bid to run in the election poses a major challenge to Fatah’s candidate Mahmoud Abbas, who does not enjoy widespread popular approval, and could lead to increased pressure on Israel to release Barghouti in the immediate future.