JERUSALEM -- Israel announced Thursday it will prosecute Marwan Barghouti -- whose popularity trails only Yasser Arafat's among his people -- in connection with deadly attacks against Israeli civilians. The trial would be the first involving a senior Palestinian figure in years.
Early Friday, a Palestinian was killed in a clash in Gaza. Palestinians said. Israeli troops entered the town of Dir al-Balah and exchanged fire with police, killing an officer, they said. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.
By placing Barghouti on trial, Israel apparently hopes to prove the complicity of the highest levels of the Palestinian leadership in terror attacks during the 21-month uprising against Israel. But the case could backfire by burnishing Barghouti's image as a resistance leader and making him even more popular among Palestinians.
Barghouti, 42, was a fiery speaker at street protests until Israeli troops detained him April 15 outside the West Bank town of Ramallah. He has not been charged.
Barghouti is the head of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement in the West Bank, and in recent public opinion surveys of Palestinians, he has been second in popularity only to Arafat himself.
Israeli Justice Ministry spokesman Yaakov Galanti said Israel planned to try Barghouti together with four other Palestinians in civilian court because of their connection "to several attacks in Israel." The spokesman did not specify the attacks.
Since the Palestinian Authority was established in 1994, Israel has not arrested or tried any senior Palestinian officials, allowing Palestinians to police areas under their control in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
But after the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000, Israel began going into Palestinian areas in search of militants. The military has killed dozens of suspected militants in helicopter strikes and other targeted killings, and the security forces have rounded up about 1,800 Palestinians suspected of involvement in violence.
However, Barghouti would be by far the most important figure to face trial.
The short, stocky Barghouti was a familiar figure at Palestinian street protests in the early days of the Palestinian uprising, where he delivered impassioned speeches on confronting the Israeli forces.
Israel said he was also the leader of a militia linked to the Fatah movement, the Tanzim, whose members have been involved in attacks. Before his arrest, Barghouti claimed he was a politician and was not linked to militia groups.
A senior Israeli security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Barghouti gradually became involved in attacks, first defending them, then funneling funds to militants and finally orchestrating them. The official said Barghouti was warned that Israel would act against him if he didn't stop.
Israeli authorities claim that during questioning, Barghouti confessed to organizing attacks, with the approval of Arafat. Barghouti's lawyer, Jawad Boulos, has denied the claim and said his client was subjected to round-the-clock questioning and deprived of sleep for days.
"Israel has no right to try him in front of a civil or military court and we are not going to cooperate," Boulos said. Barghouti is being held by police in Jerusalem.
An Israeli statement said the other four facing trial are Nasser Awais, commander of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the Nablus area; Tabet Mardawi, a leader of the Islamic Jihad in Jenin; Abas Sayed, a Hamas leader; and Nasser Abu Hamid, Al Aqsa leader in Ramallah.