The court in Tel Aviv on Thursday acquitted Barghuthi - whose popularity is second only to Palestinian President Yasir Arafat's - of orchestrating attacks that led to the deaths of more than 20 other Israelis.

The influential legislator categorically denies the accusations and rejects the trial proceedings as illegitimate. He was seized in 2002. 

Prosecutors asked for five life sentences for the Intifada champion, widely seen as a potential successor to Arafat.

Barghuthi warned that the Intifada would only end when Israel ended its occupation.

"As long as Palestinian mothers are weeping, Israeli mothers
will also weep," he said.

Bargaining chips

Following the court's decision, resistance fighters said they will kidnap Israeli occupation soldiers to exchange them for Barghuthi.

Resistance movements vowed to
secure Barghuthi's release

A Gaza leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades said the resistance movement will make abducting troops a "top priority".

On Thursday, Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip said they felt Barghuthi's trial placed their uprising on trial, reported Aljazeera correspondent Walid al-Umari.

Following the conviction, Justice Minister Yosef Lapid
said Israel might consider putting Arafat on trial.

But a senior Israeli source said there were no immediate plans
for prosecuting Arafat. Lapid said Israel had not brought Arafat to trial already because it did not want to prosecute public figures.

Symbol of resistance

Barghuthi's trial has made him a symbol of the three and a half year Palestinian uprising.

His verdict comes at a time of high tension as Israeli occupation troops wage a bloody invasion in the occupied Gaza Strip refugee camp of Rafah which has left at least 46 Palestinians dead. The majority of those killed have been civilians.

"As a political prisoner his popularity has surged more than ever before to the level of a Nelson Mandela," Fatah lawmaker Qaddura Faris said, referring to the iconic South African former president who emerged from prison to defeat apartheid.

Supporters believe that finding Barghuthi guilty would only bolster him.

"I am against killing innocents. But ... I am proud of the resistance to Israeli occupation. To die is better than living under occupation," Barghuthi told prosecutors at one hearing.
   
He has reportedly used mobile phones smuggled into his cell to help broker short-lived ceasefires between Palestinian resistance groups and Israel.