Marwan Barghouti

JERUSALEM – A senior member of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s cabinet today proposed the release of convicted murderer, terror group founder and alleged planner of the second Palestinian intifada Marwan Barghouti in exchange for the freedom of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Gideon Ezra, from Olmert’s Kadima party, said Barghouti’s release could help strengthen Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party. Ezra, a former director of Israel’s Shin Bet Security Services, is a member of Olmert’s security cabinet.

Citing a senior source in Olmert’s office last week, WND reported exclusively the Israeli government was considering releasing Barghouti in exchange for Shalit.

The source told WND that in a meeting last Wednesday with Israeli officials, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman presented the Jewish state with Hamas’ latest demand for Shalit’s freedom – the release from Israeli prison of Barghouti, along with at least 1,000 other Palestinian prisoners.

In a national address here last week, Olmert said that in exchange for Shalit’s freedom, his government is willing to release “many, many” Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, including those serving lengthy sentences.

Shalit, a 19-year old dual French-Israeli citizen, was kidnapped in June during the raid by Hamas and two other terror groups of an Israeli military station bordering the Gaza Strip. In response, the Israeli Defense Forces launched its first major ground operation in Gaza since Israel withdrew from the territory last summer.

According to sources close to Hamas, the terror group has been demanding more than 1,400 Palestinian prisoners, including many convicted for carrying out terror attacks.

Diplomatic sources in Jerusalem last week told WND Olmert has authorized Egypt, which is mediating a deal with Hamas, to agree to a maximum of 300 prisoners in exchange for Shalit. But today they said Olmert increased the number of Palestinian prisoners he is willing to free to 1,000.

Sources in Olmert’s office said Israel is considering Hamas’ request to free Barghouti.

“The request was not immediately rejected,” said a source.

Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian parliament, is founder of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a terror group that has carried out scores of suicide bombings, deadly shooting attacks and hundreds of rocket firings at Jewish communities near Gaza. He is serving multiple life terms for his role in killing five Israeli civilians.

Barghouti has boasted of being one of the main architects of the Palestinian intifada that began in 2000, killing 993 Israelis and 3,777 Palestinians. He successfully ran in Palestinian elections earlier this year, stressing as part of his election platform his efforts in planning the intifada.

Fadwa Barghouti, Marwan’s wife, said she received a phone call this week from Khaled Meshaal, the overall leader of Hamas, in which Meshaal pledged not to release Shalit unless Israel frees Barghouti.

According to a number of polls, Barghouti enjoys widespread Palestinian support across the political spectrum and is favored as a potential Palestinian leader.

Some analysts here have speculated Israel would be willing to release Barghouti in hopes the Palestinian politician could stabilize the Palestinian Authority so Olmert can carry out his stated plan of withdrawing from the West Bank. Barghouti has held a number of meetings with Israeli leaders from his jail cell.

Kidnapped Israeli soldier ‘treated well’

Meanwhile, Noam Shalit, Gilad’s father, said today he is willing to meet with Hamas members to discuss the freedom of his son. He said he would request a visit with Gilad.

In a WND exclusive interview in August, Abu Muhammad, leader of the Palestine Army of Islam, one of the groups that claimed responsibility for Shalit’s abduction, said the Israeli soldier is being treated well.

“I can say that [Shalit] is treated very well according to Islamic rules that oblige Muslims to treat prisoners good. Not like America treats our Muslims brothers in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. And not like the Zionists treat our brothers in the Israeli jails,” said Abu Mohammed.

The Army of Islam is a splinter of the Popular Resistance Committees, a coalition of terror organizations operating in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. It claimed responsibility for the Shalit abduction along with Hamas and the Committees.

Israeli defense officials have stated several times they suspect Shalit is being held in Khan Yunis, a large city in central Gaza.

But Abu Muhammad questioned the Israeli information.

“Who told you that he is in Khan Yunis?” the terror leader asked.

He said it was possible Shalit was taken from Gaza into the neighboring Egyptian Sinai desert, which is known to be a stronghold for groups working on behalf of al-Qaida.

“It is not an impossible mission to smuggle anything or anyone from Gaza to Sinai,” Abu Muhammad told WND.

Egyptian and Palestinian guards are stationed along Egypt-Gaza crossings, but security officials say many border areas are penetrable.

Abu Muhammad refused to answer particular questions about Shalit’s abduction or whereabouts.

“At the moment of the kidnapping we said that no information will be given for free, and you don’t expect me to give you any more information, do you?”

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