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Israel

Marwan Barghouti, A Palestinian Mandela Or Israel's Worst Nightmare?

Imprisoned in Israel since 2002, Marwan Barghouti may be the only figure who could unite all Palestinians. Israel must decide if it's more risky to release him or keep him in jail. Barghouti offers a rare written exchange with Le Monde.

A mural in Ramallah depicting Marwan Barghouti
A mural in Ramallah depicting Marwan Barghouti
Piotr Smolar

JERUSALEM — One of the three men locked up in cell number 28 at the Hadarim prison loves reading. Whether it's in Arabic, Hebrew or English, he devours history books, poetry collections and biographies of famous Israeli leaders. He wants to know the way they think.

Marwan Barghouti, 56, takes care of himself. He walks and runs. Once a week, he meets with one of his lawyers. Once every two weeks, his wife Fadwa visits and tells him about their four children. In 14 years, he's gotten to see them just a few times. A picture of his face painted or plastered on the walls of the West Bank reminds the children that their father has a special status. He is the hardened résistant, a symbol of the Palestinian national movement.

"My release is bound to happen, sooner or later," says Marwan Barghouti, in a written interview with Le Monde. "Israel will have to release me, me and the others. During these last decades, it has already happened thanks to the exchange of prisoners or through political discussion."

Barghouti was in charge of Tanzim, one of the armed branches of Fatah, which is the dominant member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. He was accused of directing numerous deadly suicide attacks during the second Intifada, from 2000 to 2004, and was sentenced to five life imprisonments in 2004.

At the end of March, the High Court of Justice rejected an interview request by the center-left newspaper Haaretz. It ruled that Barghouti should make the request himself, which is unimaginable as he does not accept the legitimacy of Israeli justice.

An international campaign in support of his application for the Nobel Peace prize kicked off in 2013, and has grown substantially this year. Even the 1980 Argentinian laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel suggested his name, but success is unlikely. Many defend Barghouti and compare him to South African anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela — which is debatable.

"It is the biggest campaign in the history of the Palestinian people," says Palestinian diplomat Majed Bamya. "No one knew we could rally so many people on prisoners' issues. We thought that the subject of Israeli security would scare people away, but it's the total opposite. That absurd sentence against him proved that Israeli justice is part of the occupation."

Barghouti supported the Oslo Accords in 1993, but then realized that bilateral negotiations with Israel were a dead end. He is not opposed to armed combat with Israel, but he considers it ill-timed now. He believes the knife attacks since last October are unproductive as they are not part of a global strategy.

"We believe in people's resistance accompanied by a campaign of boycott everywhere, BDS-style: Boycott-Disinvestment-Sanctions," he said. "We ask for sanctions against Israel and for it to become isolated until it ends its occupation of Palestinian territories that it started in 1967, and allows for a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital."

"He represents an ideal"

Barghouti says that he dreams of a national reconciliation that resolves rivalries between Palestinian factions. A recent survey from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, a think tank based in Ramallah, shows that 33% of Palestinians would like Barghouti to head the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) after current president Mahmoud Abbas leaves office, while 24% are estimated to vote for Ismaïl Haniyeh, the political leader of Hamas.

"Marwan represents an ideal," says Kaddoura Fares, president of the Palestinian Prisoners Club. "The National movement must regain its identity."

While Fares said he believes in disrupting the functioning of day-to-day life in the West Bank to make Israelis miserable — "We shall drill holes in the pipelines, block the roads and cut the cables", Barghouti disagrees with this strategy.

"He does not consider people an army, ready to be activated by the simple touch of a button," says Ahmad Ghnaïm, who led Barghouti's brief presidential campaign in 2005.

Barghouti says his growing popularity does not bother Abbas, a leader whose policies Barghouti has criticized in the past. "As he has said several times, he does not plan on being a candidate in the next election," Barghouti says in reference to Abbas. But his release is not a priority for Abbas.

"During the last 14 years, if Abbas wanted to do something for Marwan, he would not be in prison right now," says Barghouti's wife Fadwa.

Barghouti does not hold back his criticism of Israel: "It is a first for an occupied population to be asked to provide services to the occupant," he says. "As a consequence, security coordination hurts Palestinians. Abbas offered 11 years of security to Israel which was never seen before, and Israel took advantage of it by spreading its colonies, seizing lands, spreading Judaism in Jerusalem and continuing the siege of Gaza, where there's widespread unemployment and poverty."

Israeli opinion on Barghouti has been divided for years. In prison, he is seen as a martyr. Outside, he is seen as unpredictable.

One of Barghouti's advantages compared to Fatah's executives is his ability to overcome the war with Hamas, which has been ongoing since 2007. "Marwan wants a strategy accepted by every faction," explains wife Fadwa, while she sits in the comfortable office devoted to her husband's cause in Ramallah. "He was already doing it when he was leading the second Intifada. As soon as he is released, unity will resound." Fadwa went to Tunis and Cairo as a personal messenger for Barghouti. She also met with representatives of Hamas. At the end of December, in the Qatari capital of Doha, Barghouti's friends led secret negotiations, and at the end of January in Istanbul, Turkey, they met with Gaza's Islamic leaders. Those meetings defined discussions between Fatah's delegation and Hamas this spring.

Jibril Rajoub, a potential Abbas successor and member of the Fatah executive committee, advocates a "drastic change" in the PNA's strategy. "Everyone agrees on saying that it is enough. We are going to deal with the occupant as if it is our enemy," he said. "I respect Marwan, and I hope he will become the Mandela of Palestine with a Nobel prize. However, my problem is the 7,000 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel, including him. Our issue is national, not individual. Everyone has the right to dream but in the end, Fatah institutions will decide."

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