Palestinians celebrating the Shalit prisoner swap wave a flag with a picture of Marwan Barghouti in the West Bank village of Kobar, October 2011. Emil Salman

Will Marwan Barghouti Be the Palestinian Nelson Mandela?

Nearly a decade and a half after he began serving multiple life sentences for his role in the killings of the second intifada, Marwan Barghouti is still seen – among most Palestinians, many Israelis and world leaders – as the man who could lead his people to independence. Through a mediator, Barghouti tells Haaretz that he remains a staunch proponent of the two-state solution and that he intends to run for Palestinian president should elections be held.

Update: On April 16, 2017, 700 Palestinian prisoners declared a mass hunger strike in a campaign spearheaded by Marwan Barghouti

1. RAMALLAH, 2002

On April 15, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz called the defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. “The Shin Bet has tracked him down. We know where he’s hiding,” Mofaz told the minister.

“I don’t want him liquidated – just arrest him,” Ben-Eliezer implored Mofaz. In his view, the most-wanted individual would be the next leader of the Palestinians, after the Yasser Arafat era.

“If he tries to resist and fight, we will shoot him,” Mofaz told his boss, “but I’m willing to bet he will give up without a fight. He has no guts.”

In the months before he was located, Marwan Barghouti behaved like a hunted man. “We tried to eliminate him twice, we wasted his people right and left,” Avi Dichter, the head of the Shin Bet security service at the time, told Haaretz.

On March 29, 2002, the IDF launched Operation Defensive Shield, to conquer the Palestinian cities in the West Bank. The month that heralds spring would be remembered in Israel as “Black March”: 110 civilians and soldiers were killed in terrorist attacks, mostly in suicide bombings.

After the army took control of Ramallah again, Marwan Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian parliament, secretary general of Fatah and leader of the Tanzim militia – the “chief of staff of the intifada,” from Israel’s point of view – disappeared as though the earth had swallowed him up. “We were told something we rarely heard,” Capt. A., from the undercover Duvdevan unit told Haaretz, “namely that the order to capture him was a directive of the prime minister, Ariel Sharon.”

Durar Bacri

Wiretapping revealed that Barghouti was hiding in a safe house. The commander of the army’s Ramallah Brigade at the time, Brig. Gen. (res.) Ilan Paz, told Haaretz: “When the intelligence arrived that he was in a building in the heart of a Ramallah neighborhood, [forces from] an armored brigade surrounded the site and the baton was passed to me. The Duvdevan unit was under my command. We understood that he was in the building. One of the soldiers saw him through the window, taking cover close to what looked to us, at least, like an old woman who was lying on a bed. We removed everyone from the building. I called the division commander, Yitzhak Gershon, and told him that if I were in his place, I would reconsider the whole matter.

“To take a political leader into captivity is no trifling matter,” Paz continued. “At the end of the day, he had not murdered anyone with his own hands. I wondered to myself about the need for the operation, which might end with him being killed. The reply I got was: ‘Moving ahead.’ In cases like these we implemented the ‘pressure-cooker’ procedure. You gradually degrade the event, in order not to risk soldiers’ lives, until antitank fire is directed at the house or bulldozers are called in. In this case, the event ended when we went, armed and with dogs, to the door of the building in which he was hiding. He came out, looking frightened.”

Gershon, the division commander, took Barghouti’s hand and led him out of the apartment building. “I put him in the command car,” Gershon related in a conversation with Haaretz. “I took out my canteen and gave him water. He was kind of flipped out. Very frightened. I said to him: Don’t worry. We will not do to you what you would have done to us.”

Added Gershon: “In my opinion, he should be released unconditionally at this point. And not as a collaborator with us, but as someone who will see to the [future of the] Palestinian people, if there is even a small chance that he may become a leading figure on the other side. I say this even though I know he has blood on his hands, as the leader of the Tanzim in the second intifada. Peace is made with powerful enemies whose honor has not been trampled.”

‘The myth will grow’

The army officers who captured Barghouti are convinced that he should now be set free. The same view was held by Ehud Barak. Shortly after Barghouti was captured and taken in for interrogation by the Shin Bet, Barak – the prime minister at the time the second intifada erupted, but by then a private citizen – spoke to Chief of Staff Mofaz. “Have you lost your mind? What’s the story with Barghouti?” Barak asked rhetorically. “If it’s part of your struggle against terrorism, it’s meaningless. But if it’s part of a grand plan to make him a future national leader of the Palestinians, then it’s a brilliant scheme, because what’s really missing in his résumé is direct affiliation with terrorism. He will fight for the leadership from inside prison, not having to prove a thing. The myth will grow constantly by itself.”

Prime Minister Sharon, who gave the order to kill or arrest Barghouti, agreed to free him for a different reason: as part of a potential deal with the Americans in return for the release of the spy Jonathan Pollard. But that didn’t work out. Yuval Diskin, deputy chief of the Shin Bet during the intifada, said in private conversations that Barghouti’s release was definitely possible as one step within the framework of negotiations with the Palestinians. (Diskin did not reply to a query from Haaretz on the subject.)

In contrast, former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who was deputy chief of staff at the time of Barghouti’s capture, believes that his place remains in prison. That opinion is shared by Avi Dichter, who headed the shadow organization that came up with the information about Barghouti’s whereabouts. “When I was head of the Shin Bet,” he says, “there were ministers in the Sharon government who tried to pressure me to take a stand in favor of his release. I told them not to bother. A very senior Israeli political figure described him to me as ‘Mandela.’ [Former Meretz leader] Haim Oron saw him as the future of the Palestinian nation. I told them all that he had bought his leadership with the blood of Jews.”

The Israeli civilian and military leadership that was dealing with the second intifada was thus split on the fraught question of whether to release Barghouti. But that entire story is but a promo to the drama that could ensue when the current Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) steps down. Ill, tired and faring disastrously in the polls (65 percent of the Palestinian public wants him to go), Abbas might declare his resignation soon. “He has no support,” says Yossi Beilin, who co-authored a draft peace agreement with Abbas in 1995. “He is functioning as in other regimes that we know: by means of presidential edicts, loyal security forces and a significant diminishment of human rights. His regime is weak, and therefore the circumstances of his leaving are not necessarily related to the state of his health.”

In the meantime, Barghouti has already announced that if Abbas steps down and a presidential election is held, he will run from his cell in Hadarim Prison, near Haifa, where he is serving five life sentences. .

“He [Barghouti] has been well ahead of his rivals in every public opinion poll conducted in recent years,” Dr. Khalil Shkaki, director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, told Haaretz. In the center’s most recent poll, conducted this month with the participation of 1,200 interviewees in the West Bank and Gaza, support for Barghouti stood at 40 percent, as compared with 20 percent for Abbas and 35 percent for senior Hamas figure Ismail Haniyeh.

In a poll conducted last March, which posited a scenario of an election fought between Barghouti and Haniyeh, the former received 57 percent, the latter 39 percent. The poll found that in a contest between Haniyeh and Abbas, the Gaza-based leader would win handily, by 52 percent to 41 percent.

According to Shkaki, it’s important to bear in mind that the majority of the Palestinian public doesn’t believe that an election will be held anytime soon. Nevertheless, he says, in a scenario in which Abbas’ term suddenly ends, Fatah and PLO institutions will have to take immediate steps to bring about the election of a successor. “There is no doubt that Marwan Barghouti is in a better opening position than any other candidate,” Shkaki concludes.

Mass nonviolence

Muhammed Nasser, AP

Even if he wakes up to a prison rollcall every morning for the rest of his life, Barghouti 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.

MK Jamal Zahalka, chairman of the Balad party, a faction within of the Joint List, visited Barghouti a week ago and relates that the latter viewed the collective run of the Arabs in the last Knesset election as a model for emulation, “for his aspiration to unite Fatah and Hamas in a nonviolent protest revolution. He is the best candidate for president. He has an enlightened worldview about women’s rights, for example,” Zahalka notes.

Barghouti’s close friend and lawyer, Elias Sabbagh, visits him weekly. Last week they met at Gilboa Prison, to which Barghouti was abruptly moved when the Hadarim Prison authorities received “intelligence information about a planned disciplinary infraction,” according to an Israel Prison Service source.

“For Barghouti, the nonviolent struggle is an instrument, and not a goal,” 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.

A document in Haaretz’s possession, which was drawn up by the intelligence department of the IPS, states that Barghouti “initiated, taught and institutionalized the idea of underground academic studies for security prisoners, recruiting Arab universities for this goal. The prisoner is in ongoing contact with political figures in Fatah on the outside by various means, including visits by lawyers who are a conduit for receiving and transmitting messages and dealing with coordination on his part. The prisoner was involved in organizing and coordinating violent and active protest measures against the IPS, mass hunger strikes This prisoner has a senior status within and outside the detention facility, he is a self-styled candidate for the leadership of Fatah, and as such is a subject of interest on the part of figures in the Israeli political arena and elsewhere.”

2. RAMALLAH, 2016

“The idea is to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people, who will march to Jerusalem,” former PA Minister Qadura Fares tells us as he stubs out another Rothmans cigarette. Fares is considered a close associate of Barghouti, his representative on the outside. He too is very familiar with Israeli prisons, having spent 15 years in them for his membership in a Fatah armed squad. He was released in the wake of the Oslo accords. Recently, the journalist Avi Issacharoff revealed the existence of understandings that were reached earlier this year between Fares and senior Fatah officials close to Barghouti, and Hamas, concerning the renewal of the Palestinian struggle in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.

“Another way is for tens of thousands of people to sit on the bypass roads [in the West Bank] from dawn to sunset,” Fares says. “And let’s say a settler fell into the hands of the masses? There is no need to harm him, only to say to him: ‘Leave this place.’ I am talking about an intensive popular revolution that will disrupt the settlers’ lives. I want to play chess with my friends? We will sit on the road. Someone wants to have a wedding celebration? It will be held on a bypass road.”

You have consistently failed to conduct a nonviolent struggle, and instead were tempted into suicide attacks.

Fares: “Okay. It will require a few months of training and preparation. But I can reveal to you that all the people I have spoken with in the top ranks of Hamas agree to the idea of an intensive, nonviolent mass protest.”

A photograph in Fares’ office shows Barghouti, in a prison uniform, powerfully gripping the hands of a young prisoner named Thaer Hamed, the two of them flashing victory smiles. Here they are, the two symbols of the second intifada.

At 6 A.M. on March 3, 2002, Hamed lay in ambush on a hill overlooking an army checkpoint in Wadi Haramiya, between Ramallah and Nablus. Armed with an old Mauser rifle, he shot and killed seven IDF soldiers and three civilians, before escaping and becoming a folk hero in the territories. Legends arose about the identity of the mysterious sniper, who was not arrested until two years later. “In my eyes he is a hero, like all the Palestinian prisoners,” Fares told us. “He killed soldiers who caused suffering and humiliation to tens of thousands of Palestinians, and he vanquished them with one outmoded weapon.”

How do you resolve the contradiction between admiring the sniper and urging nonviolent protest? Are we to conclude that you believe the second intifada was a mistake?

Daniel Bar-On

Fares: “In the course of our history, we have fought with our blood far more than with our heads.”

International struggle

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.

“Initially, the proportion of those killed was 15:1 against the Palestinians,” former Shin Bet director Diskin noted in an interview with the Channel 10 program “The Source,” which dealt with the lessons of the second intifada. Diskin disagreed with the claim by the heads of the IDF that the Palestinians had planned a war.

But the IDF’s two top officers at the time, Mofaz and Ya’alon, put forward a narrative suggesting just that. They claimed that the so-called Al-Aqsa intifada had been planned long before and that Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount was only an excuse. A few months earlier, Barghouti had lost to Hussein a-Sheikh in the election for Fatah secretary general. Arafat ignored the results. Ya’alon was convinced that it was a sly, deliberate move by Arafat, who had designated Barghouti – considered a charismatic, militant figure – to lead the intifada. The deputy chief of staff saw a clear portent of things to come in the events in 2000 that marked the Nakba (what Palestinians regard as “the catastrophe” of the establishment of Israel in 1948), which were spearheaded by Barghouti, a few months before the Camp David summit. During the commemoration of the Nakba in demonstrations that continued for three days, stones and Molotov cocktails were thrown at soldiers. Eight Palestinians died in the subsequent exchanges of fire between Israeli troops and Tanzim militiamen. To this day, Ya’alon is convinced that this was the promo, and that Barghouti was then, and more particularly during the intifada, “Arafat’s alter-ego.”

Arafat’s right hand

Three days before Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, and the subsequent outbreak of disturbances in the territories, Carmi Gillon, a former Shin Bet director who was then head of the Peres Center for Peace, met with Barghouti in the lobby of the Hyatt Hotel in Jerusalem, in order to plan joint projects for Israeli and Palestinian youth.

“He didn’t look like someone who was spending his nights planning the intifada and his days in initiating peace projects,” Gillon recalls. “My impression was that he advocated an agreement. The eruption of the intifada surprised him, as it did Arafat. And then he rode the tiger. Barghouti understood that the political track of supporting an agreement would not help him to become leader. There is no doubt that he is very much liked by the people and is a serious candidate for president. We had a clear interest to release him. There is nothing to release him for now, because there is no momentum toward an agreement.”

This line is endorsed by another former Shin Bet head, Ami Ayalon: “In the first week of the intifada, Barghouti and his associates were as surprised as everyone else. The Shin Bet’s analysis was spot on: It was a popular uprising. And then, he [Barghouti] started to shape the operative and political logic of the second intifada. He became Arafat’s right-hand man and he believed that the intifada was the way to reach the goal of two states for two nations. When I was a cabinet minister in the government of Ehud Olmert, I told [the prime minister], during the negotiations on the release of [kidnapped soldier Gilad] Shalit, that we should release as many prisoners as possible who were Fatah assets, and above all, Barghouti. Olmert wasn’t cut out to listen to ideas of that kind.”

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