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Jailed Palestinian leader asks millions to protest

By Diaa Hadid

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, July 20 2011 7:59 a.m. MDT

RAMALLAH, West Bank — An imprisoned Palestinian uprising leader held by Israel called Wednesday for "millions" of people to take to the streets in support of a Palestinian independence bid this fall — a scenario that Israeli officials warn could spin into a new wave of violence.

With peace talks stalled since 2008, the Palestinians have said they will instead ask the United Nations to recognize their state during the General Assembly session in September.

In an effort to avert a showdown over the issue, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his first Arab media appearance to appeal for a return to negotiations. He told Al-Arabiyah TV that he would be willing to travel to Ramallah in the West Bank, if needed, for face-to-face talks.

Netanyahu's interview and the appeal by imprisoned Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti illustrated the wide gap between the positions of the two sides.

Israel wants peace talks but refuses to stop West Bank settlement construction first and makes demands the Palestinians reject — like recognizing Israel as a Jewish state and maintaining an Israeli military presence in the West Bank —while the Palestinians appear to be giving up on negotiations.

Barghouti, the most prominent Palestinian prisoner held by Israel and a potential future presidential candidate, dictated the message to his lawyers during a recent visit to his cell, according to his wife Fadwa. It was published in Palestinian newspapers, and a copy was sent to The Associated Press.

He called on Palestinians in the occupied territories as well as those in other countries to "peacefully march in their millions during the week of voting in the U.N."

Barghouti said the sight of protesters waving the black, red, green and white Palestinian flag worldwide would strengthen the Palestinian cause.

Barghouti, convicted on murder charges in 2002, is serving five life sentences for his role in fatal Palestinian attacks.

Israeli officials say neither Israel nor the Palestinians want renewed violence, but that even one individual — a Palestinian rock thrower or an Israeli soldier who opens fire — could set off an explosion.

Barghouti, 51, was a leader of a Palestinian uprising that began in 2000, during which a wave of suicide bombings rocked Israeli cities and killed more than 1,000 civilians. About 4,000 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli forces during the violence, which lasted several years.

Palestinians say their first option is full recognition from the Security Council, but the U.S. is likely to veto that. Then they would turn to the General Assembly, where they have an assured majority, for nonmember state status.

The vote would be largely symbolic, but the Palestinians believe an international endorsement would put heavy pressure on Israel to withdraw from territories claimed by the Palestinians — the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.

Gabriela Shalev, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.N., said the Palestinian U.N. initiative would be counterproductive.

"How will this help them? It can only bring violence again," she told the AP. "I think it blocks the (peace) process and both sides will hunker down in their positions and it could create a lot of rage."

Shalev said only direct negotiations would bring peace. She called the Palestinian unilateral bid "an obstacle for the peace process and will definitely not help promote what we want — two states for two people."

The Palestinians say there is no point in negotiating if Israel continues to build homes in Jewish enclaves in the territories the Palestinians claim for their state. Some 500,000 Israelis now live in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

In his TV interview, Netanyahu said all issues, including the future of Jewish settlements and final borders between Israel and a future Palestine, are matters for negotiations.

His spokesman Mark Regev said the prime minister was sincere in his offers, including a proposed trip to the headquarters of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah for talks.

"He wants to negotiate a solution, he doesn't believe in outside imposed solutions," he said. "This is the first time since he was elected that he has given an interview to Arab media. This was a conscious decision to speak with the Arab world."

At a briefing in Ramallah Wednesday, Palestinian U.N. envoy Riad Mansour said the efforts at the U.N. should be seen as part of a step-by-step process toward gaining independence from Israeli occupation.

"There are no silver bullets. We know the process of our struggle to independence. We accumulate points on a long journey to achieve independence," he said.

Heller reported from Jerusalem.

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