Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Marwan al-Barghouthi—from Detention to Presidency?

Marwan al-Barghouti during his sentencing in a Tel Aviv court in 2004/ Photo Rina Castelnuovo/The New York Times
Marwan al-Barghouti during his sentencing in a Tel Aviv court in 2004/ Photo Rina Castelnuovo/The New York Times

Palestinians in 2015 still crave a charismatic political leader who can reunite them, win their support and loyalty, and make their dream of nationhood come true. Ten years after Yasser Arafat’s death, Palestinians still remember him as the iconic leader who left a vacuum that his successor has failed to fill.

One person thought to be capable of assuming this position today is Marwan al-Barghouthi, who has been locked up by the Israeli authorities since April 2002.

Barghouthi, born in 1959 in Kobar, near Ramallah, is one of the most prominent Palestinian public figures and an icon of Fatah. He has spent most of his life in Palestinian politics, especially the Fatah movement, which he joined at the age of 15.

In 1976, at the age of 18, Barghouthi was arrested by Israel. He completed his secondary education while in jail. In 1983, he enrolled at Birzeit University, where he headed the Students’ Council for three years in a row and founded Shabiba, the Fatah youth movement.

For his political activities in college, Barghouthi was arrested again and detained several times by Israel, once for six consecutive years. In 1986, he was exiled, with other Palestinian leaders, by a decision of the then Israeli defence minister Yitzhak Rabin.

In exile, Barghouthi worked closely with Fatah’s Khalil al-Wazir and was tasked with organizing Fatah in the Palestinian territories. He was viewed by both Palestinians and Israelis as the mastermind and igniter of the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising, 1987-1993).

His achievements paved the way for him to win membership in Fatah’s Revolutionary Council during the movement’s Fifth Conference in 1989. He became the youngest member of that council in Fatah’s history.

In April 1994, Barghouthi was allowed back into the Palestinian territories, as stipulated in the 1993 Oslo Accords between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel. During the first meeting of Fatah leadership in the West Bank, he was elected unanimously as the movement’s secretary there. In 1996, he won the legislative elections and became a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, representing Ramallah. In the Council, Barghouthi worked with the political and legal committees for his objectives—the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, and liberation.

During the second Intifada (2000-2005), Barghouthi became even more popular. The major role he played in the liberation movement made him a star, not only within Fatah but also in the eyes of other factions and among the public, but his fame did not come without risk. He survived several Israeli assassination attempts, before Israel arrested him again in 2002, over his alleged responsibility for the armed operations of Fatah’s military wing, al-Aqsa Brigades. In 2004 he was sentenced to five life sentences on charges of murder. He refused to defend himself, insisting that the trial was illegal.

Since then, Barghouthi has been absent in body but strongly present in spirit in Fatah and in the Palestinian national cause in general. While in jail, his name topped Fatah’s list of candidates for the Palestinian legislative elections of 2006, and in August 2009 he was elected a member of the movement’s Central Committee.

In 2006 in prison, Barghouthi, along with prisoners from other factions, initiated what was later called the National Concordance Document. This document highlighted everything that the Palestinian factions had in common and ended up as the basis of a united political programme that was signed by all Palestinian factions except Islamic Jihad, which had reservations on several of its terms.

Surveys in 2016 have shown that Barghouthi is the only Palestinian political figure trusted by the majority of Palestinians and that, should he run for president, Barghouthi is the most likely to win.

Barghouthi is close to the people, wears what they wear, and eats what they eat. His being part of Fatah for such a long time means a great deal to Palestinians, especially because his time with Fatah was not just time: Barghouthi has paid, and is still paying, a high price for his actions. The respect all factions, especially Hamas, have for Barghouthi is unprecedented. In fact, Barghouthi was the first to ask Arafat to involve Hamas in the Palestinian Authority, after the second Intifada. He is known for having said, “partners in blood, partners in decision,” by which he meant that those who made sacrifices in the fight against occupation should have a say in the Palestinian decision making.

There are three things a Palestinian politician would need in order to become president: popular support, ability to control the heads of the security apparatus, and international acceptance and appeal. Most current Palestinian leaders lack one or more of these things. Barghouthi is obviously doing well on the first and second counts; the third has more to do with the Israeli and international political stance.

Barghouti pulled off the biggest surprise during Fatah Central Committee elections in December 2016. He received the highest number of votes at the seventh Fatah Congress, enough that the majority of the movement’s supporters demanded that Barghouti be named vice president of Fatah. But Barghouti did not get a seat.

Despite spending 15 years in Israeli prison, Barghouti has not secluded himself from Palestinian politics. He kept raising his voice about internal politics, especially concerning reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. And he stayed engaged on the issue of Israeli occupation. Barghouthi went on a hunger strike to demand better treatments for Palestinian detainees in Israel. Since 17 April 2017, more than 1,600 imprisoned Palestinians have refused to eat. As this story goes to press, the prisoners continue their hunger strike as their health worsens.

In an op-ed column published in April 2017 in The New York Times, Barghouti urged the international community to stand up to Israel’s ill-treatment of Palestinian prisoners, as well as its “inhumane system of colonial and military occupation.” Israel regards the detainees as “terrorists”. But how is it reasonable that all 6,500 detainees are “terrorists”, among them 300 children, 56 women, 13 parliamentarians and 28 journalists? That doesn’t include 500 others who are under Israeli administrative custody without accusation or trial. The detainees are demanding an end to summary actions against them. They also want to put a stop to torture and medical negligence. They also want Israel to lift tight restrictions over family visits and to respect their right to education. Their demands are not only legitimate but are in accordance with international laws.

For Barghouthi to be released from prison there must be a political atmosphere in which Washington would decide to start working for a final solution by pressuring the Israeli government. In such a situation, Barghouthi presents himself as a man capable of marketing a deal that would bring the conflict to an end, as Palestinians never doubt his patriotism.

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