GAZA, April 17: Hundreds of Palestinians rallied in Gaza City on Wednesday to demand the release of top activist Marwan Barghouthi, detained by Israel on suspicion of leading militants blamed for bombing and shooting attacks on Israelis.

“We will sacrifice our souls and blood for Marwan,” the protesters chanted, marking the annual Day of Palestinian Prisoners.

Barghouthi, plucked from hiding by Israeli special forces on Sunday, had been the chief coordinator of an 18-month-old Palestinian uprising for independence but has insisted he is a political leader and not an organiser of violence.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Barghouthi would be tried for causing the death of scores of Israelis. He has rejected calls by the Palestinian Authority to release him.

Hisham Abdel-Razek, the Palestinian minister for prisoner affairs, said at least 6,000 Palestinians had been detained by the Israeli army in its

16-day-old incursion into West Bank cities, launched after a wave of suicide bombings in Israel.

Israel has said it has rounded up thousands of Palestinians.

Abdel-Razek said that in effect, 3.3 million Palestinians were prisoners — the population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip who have been subject to Israeli army closures of towns and refugee camps in response to the Palestinians’ uprising.

“All the Palestinian people are besieged and imprisoned today. Our president is also besieged and imprisoned,” he told Reuters, referring to Yasser Arafat who is trapped inside his West Bank headquarters by the Israeli army.

He added that the detention of Barghouthi and thousands of others would not defeat the Palestinian uprising.

“We will confront their tanks with our naked chests. They will never impose surrender on us,” Abdel-Razek said.

Dozens of women waved Palestinian flags and posters of their sons at the rally. Some men marched blindfolded and handcuffed as children of prisoners sang national songs.

Under 1990s interim accords between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel was expected to free all those held in jails and detention camps, but that goal was shelved when negotiations on a final peace accord stalled in July 2000.

Israel freed most Palestinians jailed during a 1987-93 uprising, except for 1,500 serving long or life sentences.—Reuters

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