Aarab Barghouti was a toddler when I became friends with his father, Marwan Barghouti, and he was still a boy when his father was arrested by Israeli forces and subsequently tried and sentenced to five cumulative life terms, plus 40 years, after being convicted of five counts of murder and an additional count of attempted murder. The last time I met the father while he was still a free man was in November 2001; he was wanted but had not yet been apprehended. After someone smeared an unknown substance on the windows of the safe house where we were set to meet, the meeting was moved elsewhere. The next time I saw him was in Tel Aviv District Court. That was also the last time. Aarab, his youngest son, was 11 when his father was arrested, and is now a handsome, impressive student of 26. With a fashionable kaffiyeh draped around his neck, he takes his seat for a lengthy Skype conversation with me from his place of residence in San Francisco.
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Our talk took place earlier this week, on the eve of Independence Day. The booms of fireworks in the Tel Aviv skies at times drowned out his voice, in what was something of a surreal event: A conversation with the son of the “arch-terrorist,” as his father is called in Israel, during the celebration of the country’s independence. Only people who know his father know he was a true man of peace, and probably still is. His son says he identifies fully with everything his father stands for.
Aarab, who recently completed his master’s studies in financial analysis and investment management at Saint Mary’s College of California, in Moraga, CA, plans to return home soon. Several job offers await him in Ramallah. He doesn’t plan to follow in his father’s political footsteps, mainly in order not to cause his mother, Fadwa, any more sorrow. “For us, political activity means prison, and she has already suffered enough,” he says. From prison, his father urged him to pursue his studies abroad. Earlier, Aarab obtained a B.A. in economics from Bir Zeit University, adjacent to Ramallah, where his father had been a political science major.
His first memory of his father is from a family vacation in Tunisia in 1998 or 1999. Never before, and certainly never after, did he see his father so happy, he says from San Francisco. In my meeting with Marwan, in November 2001, when Israeli tanks were already in Ramallah, he told me he’d been at the Ramat Gan Safari with his children about a month earlier. Aarab didn’t see his father, who was in hiding, for about three months before his arrest, on April 15, 2002. In November 2001, we passed by his house together – Marwan pointed it out, glanced at it and said nothing. His children – three sons and one daughter – were probably there at the time, but he no longer dared go in. He was convinced he was fated to be assassinated by Israel.
“I am afraid but I am not a coward,” he told me in the small car that also carried his two unarmed bodyguards. Passersby waved to him in greeting. Four years earlier, on Land Day 1997, as we drove between burning tires around the West Bank, he had asked, “When will you understand that nothing frightens the Palestinians like the settlements?” He quoted a friend who said, “You Israelis have a present but no future, and we Palestinians have a future but no present. Give us the present and you will have a future.” Now, at the sight of the Israeli tanks that lay in wait at the end of the street, he added, “No one in the world will succeed in breaking a people’s will militarily. We are not squads or organizations. We are a people.”
He always pronounced the Hebrew word for occupation, “kibush,” with a soft beit – “kivush.” It’s possible he’s learned during his long years in prison to pronounce it with a hard beit.
Marwan Barghouti was a fan of the soccer team Hapoel Tel Aviv. He said he feared the moment when the Palestinians would lose hope. Now, he is starving himself in order to secure more humane conditions for the thousands of Palestinian prisoners. It’s not the first hunger strike he’s led in prison, but it’s the largest.
Last week, his son Aarab launched a Facebook campaign – the “saltwater challenge” – in which Arab celebrities and others are filmed drinking saltwater in solidarity with the Palestinian hunger strikers, for whom saltwater is their only nourishment. Next Sunday will mark the end of the strike’s third week. Aarab is concerned for his father’s well-being. No one but his guards has seen him for two weeks, since the prison authorities are preventing his lawyer from meeting with him.
“My father is strong, but he is no longer a young man – this year he will turn 58,” says Aarab. “The strike will affect his health, and I hope the prison authorities will show humanity and end their arrogant approach of not negotiating with my father. The prisoners are not asking for much, only minimal conditions.”
At the time of his father’s arrest, Aarab was at his uncle’s home in the village of Kobar, northwest of Ramallah, where Marwan Barghouti was born and raised. He remembers seeing his father being taken into custody on television, and bursting into tears. It was the worst moment of his life, one he will never forget. Nor did he think the moment would last so long. It wasn’t until eight months later that he met with his father for the first time in prison, together with his older brother, Sharaf. “I remember being scared,” he recalls. “We went through something like 20 doors. Dad was in isolation, and when we arrived, two warders were guarding him on his side and on our side, and there were a lot of cameras around us.
“I liked the way he strengthened and comforted us,” Aarab continues. “He didn’t want to show any sign of weakness in front of us. He is always positive. I already knew then the kind of interrogations and torture he’d been through, but as usual, the smile never left him. All he wanted was for us to feel good.”
On one occasion, Aarab was taken to a court session during his father’s trial, and was slapped in the face by a member of an Israeli family in which someone had been killed. Until his 16th birthday, Aarab saw his father twice a month – grueling 20-hour trips to the prison in Be’er Sheva for 45-minute visits with a divider between them. After he turned 16, he was allowed only one visit a year. During the past five years, Israel has allowed him only three visits, and he hasn’t seen his father at all in the past two years.
His sister, Ruba, visits their father twice a year. On one occasion, she brought her 8-month-old daughter, Talia, but the prison guards refused to allow the infant to enter even for a moment, on the grounds that she was not a first-degree relative. Talia is 4 now and has a baby sister, Sarah. Neither of them has met their grandfather. They know him only from pictures.
Aarab’s visit two years ago to Hadarim Prison, near Netanya, remains etched in his memory. “I remember small details,” he says. “I saw the white hair that had suddenly appeared in his beard, and he also had more white hair on his head. I saw redder eyes. Honestly, I saw him getting old. Everyone thinks these visits strengthen him, but he strengthens us. That man is incredible. He can give hope and strength to a whole people. The whole way to him, I think about how I will strengthen his spirit – but he strengthens me. Talks to me about the future. Urges me to study. He is my life changer, he is my teacher for life. He urged me to study, and whenever I am studying I remember his smile.”
His father was convicted by an Israeli court on five counts of murder, I tell Aarab; it’s clear that to the Israelis he is a terrorist.
“It was a political trial that was not based on any evidence or facts,” Aarab replies. “My father was fair and clear: he denied everything and argued that it was a political trial. He was sentenced to five life terms. [Nelson] Mandela was also sentenced to life imprisonment. My father is a man of peace. He always sought peace. The only thing he will not forgo is his people’s rights. Ask any Palestinian – not only in Palestine but everywhere in the world – and more than 90 percent will agree that my father’s policy and his thinking about a solution are the right road. He is not asking for much, but the Israeli government does not want people who seek the rights of the Palestinian people.
“In prison, too, my father seeks peace. Nothing will change that. Only Israeli propaganda presents him as a terrorist. Nelson Mandela was also portrayed as a terrorist. He spent 27 years in prison. And then he became a hero and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. My father is a terrorist exactly like Nelson Mandela. To the Israelis I want to say: If you admire Mandela, you should know that my father is repeating Mandela’s story. And if you do not esteem Mandela, I don’t care what you think. I am certain that one day the Israelis will reach the conclusion that the only solution is peace, and you will never have another partner like him. One day, the Israelis will see who Marwan Barghouti is.”
What would he have suggested that his father do differently? “When I look at him and at his path, I think he is perfect. My father is not a pacifist and not a terrorist. My father is an ordinary person who is struggling for the rights of his people. If only he were not in prison. He sacrificed his life for the sake of justice. That is something noble. We only live once, and he chose the greatest way to live.”