Free Marwan Barghouti — Palestine’s Mandela
The campaign for Barghouti’s release was launched in 2013 from Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island, in South Africa, where many leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle were imprisoned. Signing the Robben Island declaration were eight Nobel Peace Prize laureates, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu.
Even if Marwan Barghouti wakes up to a prison rollcall every morning for the rest of his life, he today appears to present a complete conceptual alternative to Abbas when it comes to key issues: reconciliation with Hamas, the immediate cessation of security cooperation with Israel, Palestinian Authority support for nonviolent mass protest against Israel and a boycott of Israeli goods. Barghouti thinks that the “intifada of knives” is a fatal mistake. In a conversation via a mediator who visited him in prison in late June, he told Haaretz that a popular protest should encompass hundreds of thousands of people from all the Palestinian groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The protest has to be persistent and systematic, in order to create international pressure on Israel to return to the negotiating table and end the occupation.
“There is readiness for a struggle among the Palestinian people; they need someone to lead them,” Barghouti told his interlocutor. “I still unequivocally support the idea of two states for two nations. The PA can proceed in one of two directions today: to serve as an instrument of liberation from the occupation, or to be an instrument that validates the occupation. My task is to restore the PA to its role as an instrument of national liberation.”
Barghouti is regularly visited by Arab Knesset members, some of whom see him as a future leader. “He has an 86-percent support rating among the Palestinians,” says MK Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List of Arab parties. Odeh recently brought Barghouti the massive 1999 biography of Nelson Mandela by the British journalist and writer Anthony Sampson.
“For Barghouti, the nonviolent struggle is an instrument, and not a goal,” Barghouti’s close friend and lawyer, Elias Sabbagh explains, “as long as the settlements continue to be built and Jerusalem to be Judaized. He told me that negotiations are possible if Israel expresses readiness to end the occupation and return to the 1967 lines within a time frame of a year.”
But Barghouti is pessimistic about that happening in the foreseeable future. “No de Gaulle or de Klerk has yet arisen in Israel,” he noted from his cell.
Attorney Fadwa Barghouti, the prisoner’s wife, has an office on the sixth floor of a gleaming office building in the center of Ramallah. On the walls are photographs of and paintings by her jailed husband. Since Barghouti’s incarceration, Fadwa has managed a PA-financed fund whose purpose is to create international pressure to bring about his release and in general to cultivate his myth, which has much in common with the aura that developed around Mandela in South Africa. She travels widely, meeting with foreign ministers and shapers of public opinion.
The campaign for Barghouti’s release was launched in 2013 from Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island, in South Africa, where many leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle were imprisoned. Squeezed with Fadwa Barghouti in the tiny cell on the occasion was Ahmed Kathrada, another fighter against the racist regime, who also served an extended sentence in the prison.
Signing the Robben Island declaration calling for Barghouti’s release were eight Nobel Peace Prize laureates, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu, himself a veteran of the South African campaign. This year, Tutu sent a letter to the Nobel committee, urging it to bestow the Peace Prize on Barghouti. Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the Argentine human-rights activist who himself won that prize in 1980, together with several Belgian members of parliament, has also proposed that the prize be given to the man now serving five life sentences in Israel, after being convicted of murder — noting his commitment to democracy, human rights and equality between men and women.
In his first years of imprisonment her husband was in solitary confinement and she was not allowed to see him, with the exception of one dramatic visit that was authorized by the bureau of Prime Minister Sharon. In recent years, she has been allowed two 45-minute visits a month. Phone calls are prohibited. She brings him books he requests (she’s allowed to bring one book a month). In addition to obsessive reading of books (eight to 10 a month, according to his confidants, including, recently, David Landau’s biography of Sharon), he has a subscription to Haaretz English Edition, watches the daily current-events program “London and Kirschenbaum” and Israeli newscasts religiously, exercises in the small courtyard and gives talks to prisoners.
Marwan Barghouti was born in Kobar, a small village near Ramallah, in 1959. He was arrested for the first time at age 15, for taking part in demonstrations against the occupation. In 1978, at age 19, he was tried and sentenced to five years in an Israeli prison for being a member of Fatah squads. During his prison term he completed his high-school studies. After his release he married Fadwa, a distant relative; their wedding was postponed time and again because of Barghouti’s frequent interrogations and arrests. “He wasn’t by my side in any of the births of my four children,” Fadwa Barghouti relates. The couple’s firstborn was named Qassam, after Iz al-Din al-Qassam, a pioneer of the Palestinian national struggle.
Barghouti studied political science at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank and was elected chairman of the student union. “In those years he lived between interrogation and arrest, an underground life,” his wife says. “The university was the core of national Palestinian agitation.”
In May 1987, Barghouti was expelled to Jordan. His deportation, along with some of the university’s leaders, was meant to be an Israeli “preemptive strike,” to contain ferment. However, seven months after the wave of arrests, the first intifada erupted, stunning the Shin Bet and the Israeli intelligence community — and Yasser Arafat and the PLO leadership in Tunis, as well. Fadwa Barghouti joined her husband, and their family moved back and forth between Jordan and Tunisia. According to a former senior Shin Bet official, during the intifada, there was at least one case of the murder of a settler that showed involvement by Barghouti, who was in Jordan at the time.
In 1994, following the signing of the Oslo Accords and the advent of PLO leadership in the Gaza Strip, Israel allowed Barghouti to return.
“In contrast to others, he really and truly believed that Oslo would be a five-year period after which the Palestinian state would be established,” Fadwa Barghouti recalls. “But the assassination of [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin caused tremendous damage to the process. After the rise to power of [Benjamin] Netanyahu, he understood that the process would not be realized. Contrary to your description, Barak’s offer at Camp David was not generous. The growth in settlement construction and the building of the bypass roads showed us that you had no interest in reaching an agreement.
“My and Marwan’s generation still harbors a spark of a hope that the conflict will end with a two-state solution,” she adds. “My children don’t believe in that; they aspire to a single, democratic state.”
In the period between Oslo and the second intifada, Barghouti forged an extensive network of social ties with Israeli politicians. One of Barghouti’s close friends at the time was Haim Ramon, a former cabinet minister.
“We used to meet every week, usually on Fridays in Tel Aviv,” Ramon recalls. “He was one of the most moderate figures in the PA. He told me then that it was possible to conclude an agreement, including the refugee issue. In our conversations, he said that it was clear that not one refugee would return to Israel, other than those in the camps in Lebanon, who he said were the most wretched of all. He had a pathological hatred of the settlers. In the second intifada, he adopted terrorism. After he was jailed, I received messages from him in the spirit of, ‘Why doesn’t Ramon come to visit me?’
“There is no doubt that he will be the next Palestinian president,” continues Ramon. “He’s the consensus. He is very much accepted by Hamas. When that happens, strong international pressure will be exerted on Israel, which will be forced to release him.”
In 1996, the first election for the Palestinian parliament, the Legislative Council, was held. “At that time, Barghouti issued leaflets in favor of the political process, Oslo and an agreement, but that was an anomalous, one-time case,” says Dr. Matti Steinberg, an expert on Palestinian politics and an adviser to four Shin Bet directors. “Barghouti’s life embodies the hope and the disappointment in a political agreement with Israel. I anticipate a crisis in the wake of Abu Mazen’s departure, after which they will call on the savior from prison. We may well see a development similar to what happened in South Africa: a Palestinian leader in prison. That is a very dangerous situation, which will lead to international pressure for his release.”
During Barghouti’s years of flirtation with the Zionist left, he occasionally made statements that fractured his image as an optimal partner, and perhaps augured the future. Examples are his suggestion to the Palestinian parliament to send condolences to the family of a terrorist who blew himself up in Café Apropos in Tel Aviv in 1997, and a reference to the Gaza-based bomb-maker, Yahya Ayyash, known as “the Engineer,” as a shahid, or martyr for the cause. “It is an internal Palestinian discourse,” Barghouti explained to Israelis who felt he was deceiving them. In those years he established the Tanzim, a political organization that reflected the status of the local population as against the suited, cigar-smoking figures who arrived from Tunis.
“The Tunis group viewed us as soldiers, and Marwan wanted them to see us as partners,” Qadura Fares notes about the internecine feud within Fatah. “He had been deported and was familiar with both worlds, so he was acquainted first-hand with the huge disparity between the standard of living of the leadership in Tunis and the poverty in the territories. He fought for equality and democratization. He worked to integrate people from the territories into the PA apparatus.”
Barghouti opposed the security mechanisms created by Arafat, and accused their chiefs publicly of thuggery and corruption.
“His office in Ramallah was a residence, with children peeing in the stairwell. That was the setting he chose in order to underscore the fact that he came from the ordinary people,” says the journalist Danny Rubinstein, who was a close friend of Barghouti’s. “The Tanzim was a civilian militia loyal to him. He was the major opposition to the Tunis group. That was his political calling card, and it was meant to take him to the leadership after Arafat. He was totally in favor of an agreement. I met with him two days before he went into hiding and the hunt for him began. It was in the lobby of the Park Hotel, in Ramallah. He told me that the place might be blown up — he was afraid that he was about to be liquidated.”
In 2000, on the eve of the Camp David conference, Barghouti declared that, “Arafat does not have the right to forgo the refugees’ right of return.” The conference ended in failure, with Ehud Barak declaring that there was “no partner” for peace. Two months later, on September 28, 2000, MK Ariel Sharon, the leader of the opposition, visited the Temple Mount. Riots broke out across the territories. The IDF, which in the months preceding Camp David had trained for a Palestinian-initiated war, reacted aggressively.
“The second intifada started as a popular struggle, and the Israeli army drowned it in blood,” Qadura Fares tells us in his Ramallah office. “We attended funerals in which people called on Barghouti to take revenge. Marwan, a leader with direct ties to the grass roots, could not ignore those calls, as opposed to the behavior of members of the [Fatah] Central Committee [such as Abbas]. He understood that a serious competitor to Fatah had arisen in the form of Hamas. Marwan wanted to keep Fatah strong. He was 100 percent coordinated with Arafat in the second intifada. That doesn’t mean that they sat up at night planning every detail. Barghouti understood what Arafat wanted, from hints and body language. If Arafat had wanted to stop the shooting, it would have stopped.”
Probably the most highly charged moment of the second intifada came in January 2002. The American envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni had arrived in Israel a few weeks earlier and negotiated a cease-fire, which collapsed when the IDF assassinated Raad al-Karmi, from the Tanzim, by means of a bomb. Karmi, who had carried out dozens of terrorist attacks against Israelis, was on his way to his lover at the time. The assassination, which provoked a fierce debate within the Israeli defense establishment, led to Black March and Operation Defensive Shield in April. Barghouti, who had been Karmi’s patron, called for revenge. Some Tanzim attacks were perpetrated within the Green Line, including the shooting of three people at Tel Aviv’s Sea Food Market restaurant. Barghouti would later claim that he had given instructions that the attacks be carried out only in the West Bank.
This was the juncture at which the decision was made to intensify the effort either to arrest or assassinate the №1 wanted Palestinian.
After his arrest, Barghouti underwent intensive interrogation by Shin Bet agents “Mofaz” and “Smith.” The memoranda that the interrogators wrote to sum up the conversation with Barghouti constitute his narrative about the origins of the second intifada.
“It was meant to be popular in character, and I was among its initiators,” he admitted. “But things lurched out of control.” Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount “was only the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he maintained, and went on to list the factors that led the Palestinians to foment disturbances: “Expansion of the settlements, loss of hope in the wake of the failure at Camp David, loss of hope for independence and Arafat’s failure to bring it about, the corruption of the PA and the refugee problem.”
Barghouti admitted to the interrogators that his involvement in the violence was partly due to the power struggle in the Palestinian street, “in order to force out Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” and inter-generational struggles for control among the Fatah leadership.
From his point of view, he said, the violence was not a strategic but a tactical move that was intended to bring about the Palestinian state. “The second intifada,” he predicted, “will be the last round of violence, because the Palestinians have a feeling that they restored their self-respect through the attacks. A balance was created between the sides, as happened to Israel with [Egypt’s President] Anwar Sadat after the Yom Kippur War.”
He told the interrogators that he assumed full responsibility for the Fatah attacks, but not for those inside Israel, to which he was adamantly opposed.
In his long conversations with Shin Bet agents, Barghouti showed himself to be an ambitious, calculating politician. He took part in the cycle of blood, he related, in part so that “in the future, he would be able to say of himself that he acted for peace and also in war, whereas other leaders did not dirty their hands. Thus he would gain the sympathy of the Palestinian people.”
The interrogators noted that “the interrogee has a well-developed sense of humor and regaled us with several amazing jokes.”
They were probably not referring to the following remark that he made: “I will soon be released in a prisoner exchange, like in the Jibril deal of 1985.”
Four months after his arrest, the state accused Barghouti of involvement in 37 terrorist attacks and acts of terror. The justice minister at the time, Meir Sheetrit, suggested that his trial, in a civilian court, be televised, “like the Eichmann trial” (which was broadcast live on the radio). Barghouti declined to defend himself or summon witnesses, claiming vehemently that he did not recognize Israel’s right to try him. He was convicted on five counts of murder and sentenced to five cumulative life terms in prison plus 40 years for attempted murder and membership in a terrorist organization.
The judges found that Barghouti had led terrorist squads of the Tanzim and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, provided the squad commanders with funds and arms, and in a number of cases had approved the attacks in advance. “I thought that his trial was very problematic for Israel,” Ami Ayalon says, adding, “If I believed in conspiracy theories, I would think that possibly it was an Israeli conspiracy aimed at forging a leader who believes in the two-state solution. But I had a professor at Harvard who said that conspiracy theories should always be left to the end as a last resort. Most of what we see is random or dumb.”
Beilin agrees that “the trial was a mistake,” noting that “even the presiding judge, Sara Sirota, thought it was wrong. The trial turned him into Mandela, and Barghouti is not Mandela. He’s a street cat who in large measure was behind the second intifada. He thought he could control the flames, but no one ever controls any flame.”
Following Yasser Arafat’s death, in November 2004, Mahmoud Abbas, who opposed the path of armed struggle followed by Arafat and Barghouti, was appointed his temporary successor. From his isolation cell, Barghouti declared that he himself intended to run for president. Information reached the Israeli leadership that the two people closest to Barghouti — his wife Fadwa and Qadura Fares — were opposed to the idea, and they convinced him to withdraw. Unusually, the Prime Minister’s Office allowed the two to visit Barghouti, who had been in total isolation in the Be’er Sheva Prison for two years. “I went to see him at Abu Mazen’s request. Today I admit that I made a mistake when I pressured him not to run,” Fares admits, and recalls the dialogue between them.
Fares: Marwan, let’s say that on January 10, 2005, we get up in the morning and you are the president of Palestine. What will you do for us? You are in solitary here in Be’er Sheva.
Barghouti: And what will Abu Mazen do?
Fares: I am under no illusions that Abu Mazen will succeed in establishing Palestine. But he can rehabilitate the home after the destruction of the intifada, rebuild the institutions, promote democracy and continue the political process.
Barghouti: Remember, Qadura, the Israelis will not give us anything. They will not allow you to achieve anything.
Barghouti: When a leader has only one option, there is no reason for the Israelis to give him anything. And Abu Mazen will go only for the diplomatic option, for negotiations. We’ve tried a struggle without negotiations, and negotiations without a struggle, and it didn’t help. Only negotiations and a struggle will assure the liberation.
In 2004, Barghouti supported the Israeli government’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. He later sent a letter from prison asking the Palestinians not to react with violence when Israel evacuated the Gaza settlers. On the eve of the dramatic move by Sharon, an imagination-firing Israeli initiative was put forward by the ambassador to Washington, Danny Ayalon.
“I received Sharon’s tacit agreement before the disengagement for the following move: Barghouti’s release in return for Pollard,” Ayalon recalls. “To that end, I met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. I knew that the Americans supported Barghouti’s release, in order to strengthen Fatah. I asked her: ‘Would you be willing to release Pollard in exchange for Barghouti?’ She replied: ‘Danny, don’t go there.’”
The Barghouti-for-Pollard initiative under Ariel Sharon sank like a rock. Barghouti was placed in the top slot on Fatah’s list of candidates in the legislative election of January 2006. When the results came in, Abbas was forced to appoint Ismail Haniyeh as prime minister. Amid what looked like incipient signs of an impending civil war among the Palestinians, Barghouti drew up an ambitious document to block the currents that were flowing outside. He entered into a lengthy dialogue with security prisoners from the various Palestinian groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The result was the “prisoners document.”
That formative text calls for the establishment of two states alongside one another, based on pre-1967 boundaries, implementation of the right of return and adoption of previous agreements between the sides, abandonment of the armed struggle within Israel proper, and the introduction of democracy as well as equal rights for women.
However, on June 25, 2006, the day on which Hamas Prime Minister Haniyeh was supposed to announce the document’s acceptance in the name of the organization, members of Hamas’ military wing kidnapped Corp. Gilad Shalit along the Gaza border. The signing ceremony was suspended. It would be another five years before Netanyahu, who became prime minister for the first time in 2009, would sign an exchange-of-prisoners deal for Shalit — without Barghouti’s inclusion. Earlier, the Olmert government had also left him incarcerated.
Haim Oron, the former Meretz leader, relates that Defense Minister Ehud Barak told him that he considered Barghouti’s arrest to have been a fundamental mistake. Nonetheless, the Olmert-Barak government did not free him, either.
Barghouti supported the negotiations conducted by Olmert. He told confidants at the time that if it depended on him, he could sign off on a final-status agreement “within a few days.” Some in the Israeli establishment believed that Barghouti’s support for negotiations was authentic. As proof, they noted that Barghouti’s closest confidants, led by Fares, had signed the Geneva Initiative, an unofficial framework for an agreement worked out by teams of Israelis and Palestinians, a few years before. “I would not have signed it if I were against it,” Fares told Haaretz.
Others suspected that the moderation Barghouti displayed in his prison conversations had a personal motivation: his release as part of an agreement, after which he would resume his militant line. “I know that Abu Mazen put forward Marwan’s release as a condition for an agreement,” Fadwa Barghouti says, “and later also to the U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry. I was told this personally.”
Other Israeli governmental sources, however, maintain that Abbas has always behaved duplicitously. “We know that he occasionally asked the Americans for his [Barghouti’s] release, including in a tete-a-tete with President Obama,” says a knowledgeable source. “But there were also assessments that, for fear of his own survival, Abu Mazen preferred that Barghouti remain in prison.” According to MK Zahalka, “There were years when they didn’t want to hear his name in the Muqata” — the Palestinians’ headquarters in Ramallah.
“Over the years, Abu Mazen did not make the required effort for my release,” Barghouti himself told Haaretz.
In recent months, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin has met with academics to discuss the situation that will ensue after Abbas’ departure. Most of his interlocutors told him that Barghouti is the only Fatah figure who could defeat Hamas in an election. This has not led Elkin to join the chorus of those urging his release.
“On the day after Abu Mazen, the PA will collapse, and we need to be ready for that,” Elkin tells Haaretz apocalyptically. “In my estimation, Fatah will not risk an election, which it might lose to Hamas, and even if it takes the chance, the Netanyahu government will not allow the Arabs of East Jerusalem to vote.” Elkin sees a likely situation of chaos and violence in the immediate post-Abbas period, and also believes that Barghouti will rot in prison.
In the view of some, Abbas’ three posts (PLO chairman, Fatah chairman, PA president) will be divided among three different individuals. The PLO chairman will be the senior figure and will spearhead political moves, the PA president will be a technocrat who will handle administrative affairs, and the Fatah leadership will be taken by a third person from the organization. And what will happen if there is an election and Barghouti wins it? “The [Israeli] security cabinet has not yet held a discussion relating to that question,” a cabinet minister tells Haaretz.
President Reuven Rivlin, who is today against Barghouti’s release, has held a few meetings with political figures in which the question arose of what Israel should do if Barghouti is elected president. Rivlin said in those conversations that the country’s leaders should, in that event, recalculate their course and do what meets Israel’s interests best. In Rivlin’s opinion, if the international community sees him as a Mandela-like figure and exerts pressure for his release, it will be against Israel’s best interests to have him remain in jail.
Barghouti himself recently told one of his visitors that he is vehemently opposed to having Abbas’ successor chosen in an election in the style of the Arab states. “The only way is a completely democratic election under international supervision,” the prisoner said. “Anyone who thinks that the next Palestinian president will not be elected via the ballot box is living under illusions.”