‘Palestine’s Mandela’ spends his prison time reading, writing, thinking
Joseph Dana, The National
Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza celebrated the return of their loved ones last Sunday as the final wave of prisoners were released in an exchange between Hamas and Israel. However, one prisoner was notably absent. Marwan Barghouti, the jailed Fatah leader known by many Palestinians as the “prince of resistance”, remains behind bars in Israel despite promises from the Palestinian leadership that his freedom would be secured through the exchange of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. On the eve of the prisoner swap, Barghouti released a 255-page book, written secretly behind bars and smuggled out via lawyers and family members, detailing his experience in Israeli jails.
Barghouti is a figure of towering reverence among Palestinians and even some Israelis, regardless of political persuasion. Yet, he was reluctant to begin a life in the political spotlight. In fact, the Israeli occupation came to him, his long-time friend Sa’ad Nimer noted during a long conversation in a dank Ramallah coffee shop. When Barghouti was just 15, living in the small village of Kober just outside Ramallah, Israeli soldiers shot his beloved dog during a military sweep of the village. From that moment on, Nimer said in a haze of nostalgia, the occupation was a personal issue for Barghouti.
A natural leader with admirable charisma and an unwavering hatred of Israeli occupation, Barghouti has been an active political leader since the early 1980s. At age 18, during one of his early stints in an Israeli prison for political organising, he was elected the prisoner representative, a task which required him to unify competing political affiliations of prisoners and negotiate with Israeli authorities. The appointment foreshadowed a long career of uniting Palestinians regardless of political agenda.
Despite his vocal support for the two-state solution and attempts at reconciliation with Israeli civil society, Barghouti has remained a puzzling and aggressive figure for Israel. “When Marwan got out of jail the second time [in 1982 at age 23], the Israelis did not know what to do with him,” said Nimer, who is the director of the Free Marwan Baghouti Campaign based in Ramallah. In the early 1980s, Barghouti was a primary organiser in the Shabibia movement, a Fatah-based student group that campaigned for better education standards in Palestine. The movement, still active in the West Bank, was a primary organising vehicle of the First Intifada.
While not overtly against the occupation, Barghouti’s early political activity was understood by Israel as a threat and he was deported to Jordan under extraordinary circumstances. According to Nimer, “Jordan was not taking deportees at the time, so the Israelis just put him on a helicopter and dropped him into the middle of the Jordanian desert, desperate to get rid of him”.
From Jordan, Barghouti helped organise the First Intifada, relaying messages and tactics to Palestinians, mostly aligned with Shabibia, in the West Bank. After the signing of the Oslo peace accords in 1994 he returned to the West Bank as a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the parliament of the Palestinian Authority, and embraced the peace process wholeheartedly.
During his time as a PLC member, he maintained a tough stance on corruption inside Palestinian politics and won himself many enemies in the upper echelons of power in the West Bank and Gaza. Unlike many of his colleagues in the PLC, Barghouti was never appointed to public office and derived his political capital directly from the people who consistently provided him with strong electoral results.
For Kadoura Fares, the current president of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Association and former member of the PLC, Barghouti’s pragmatic approach to peace during the 1990s demonstrated his overarching desire to end Israeli occupation at all costs. “We had a meeting with Israeli officials in Jerusalem in 1996,” Fares told me in his comfortable Ramallah office adorned with paintings of the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish. “I was very worried because of the negative reaction of many Palestinians towards meeting with the Israelis, but Marwan calmed me down. He told me that it was the time for peace and we must pursue it despite the public pressure. He would always say that there is a time for peace and a time for resistance. It was a time for peace.”
When Oslo collapsed and the Second Intifada engulfed Israel and the Palestinian territories in violence, Barghouti embraced armed resistance. He assumed a leadership position in Fatah’s armed wing, coordinating attacks against the Israeli military in the West Bank and Israeli civilians in Tel Aviv. It is for these activities that Israelis understand Barghouti as a terrorist leader. His friends and colleagues maintain that his support of armed resistance as a vehicle to achieving an end to occupation was in line with the popular sentiments expressed on the street at the time.
“He got credibility for supporting armed resistance from the Palestinian street,” recalls Laila Jamal, a member of the Palestinian Authority’s media department from the village of Salfit in the central West Bank. “During that time, we saw the occupation in action and everyone supported armed resistance. He understood this and acted in line with the popular sentiment.”
Barghouti was arrested by Israeli forces conducting sweeps in Ramallah in April 2002 while he was a sitting member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. He was quickly transferred to Israel for trial in a civilian court on multiple counts of murder including authorising and organising an attack in Tel Aviv in which many civilians were killed, attempted murder and membership in a terrorist organisation.
Citing the illegitimacy of the Israeli legal system over occupied Palestinians, Barghouti refused to accept the charges or stage a defence in the Tel Aviv court. During the drawn out proceedings, he delivered impassioned and researched speeches arguing that the court and the practices of the Israeli military in the West Bank were illegal under international law.
He never recognised the authority of the Israeli court system from his first statement to the judge in which he proclaimed, “I am a political leader, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, elected by my people. Israel has no right to try me, to accuse me, judge me. This is a violation of international law. I have a right to resist occupation.” Dismissing the allegation, Israel charged him with five life sentences for murdering Israelis and 40 years imprisonment for attempted murder, which he is currently serving.
Since his conviction, Barghouti has done what he knows best; actively campaigning for the reunification of Palestinian political factions. After the 2006 Hamas-Fatah split, which resulted in bloody infighting among the factions, Barghouti organised a prisoners’ campaign with members of Hamas, Fatah as well as PFLP and DFLP that called for immediate reunification. According to those close to him, like Fares, his work on Palestinian unity is a reason why so many Palestinian politicians are afraid of his freedom and a possible reason why he was left out of the recent prisoner swap.
If there is one experience that has the potential to unify the Palestinian people, it is the experience of being a prisoner in an Israeli military jail. Barghouti’s new book, One Thousand Nights in Solitude, is, at its core, a book about dealing with the Israeli prison system as a Palestinian. Reading like an instruction manual for coping with the experiences of interrogation and prolonged detainment, the book breaks new ground in the underreported subject of Israel’s treatment of Palestinian political prisoners.
Israel’s military court system has processed roughly 750,000 Palestinians according to the Red Crescent, but exact numbers are hard to obtain. In fact, any sort of exact information about Israel’s military jail system is difficult to find given its role as one of the primary Israeli mechanisms of controlling Palestinian dissent and nascent resistance to the occupation.
According to a recent expose by the Israeli liberal daily Haaretz, military courts have an astonishingly high conviction rate of 99.74 per cent. Many Palestinian defendants are put through a programme of psychological and physical torture that often results in coerced testimonies necessary in the maintenance of a high conviction rate. Haaretz has also released reports seemingly confirming the widespread belief that torture is widely used and that Israeli military judges are often aware that information used in tribunals is obtained through psychological and physical torture
“He is trying to create a civil resistance inside the military prison system,” said Majad Abdel Hamid, a young artist and political activist in Ramallah. “If all Palestinians refused to recognise the legitimacy of the Israeli military court system, Israel would be in big trouble. This is partly what the new book is about.”
Kept in solitary confinement for an extended period and put through various periods of psychological and even physical torture, Barghouti’s book details the tenacity required to not wilt under such difficult conditions. In the first chapter, he describes in verbose language how Israel used various interrogators to coerce information out of him regarding senior Fatah leaders in the West Bank. This common procedure was extremely tough on Barghouti since, in the words of Sa’ad Nimer, “they wanted information tying Yasser Arafat to terrorism and they never got it from Marwan”.
Following a political career best understood as leading by example, Barghouti sets out to demonstrate how Palestinians can achieve a meaningful non-violent resistance against the military court system. In addition to the practical information of surviving within the Israeli prison system, he details his arguments for Palestinian political unity as a means of resistance to Israeli occupation.
The book devotes great detail to his three years housed in a tiny cell (measuring one by 1.5 metres) in solitary confinement. It is from this experience that the title, One Thousand Nights in Solitude was born.
Fadwa Barghouti is a carefully appointed woman who has spearheaded her husband’s awareness campaign since the beginning of his current imprisonment. From the same village of Kober, Fadwa is a distant relative of Marwan, sharing the same fourth-generation great grandfather. Sitting in her comfortable office overlooking the Muqata compound where Yasser Arafat was confined by Israeli forces at the height of the Second Intifada, Fadwa remains confident that her husband will be released soon, but is visibly upset at the recent failure by Hamas to gain his freedom. “I know why he was not released,” she told me sipping sugary tea, “but I am not going to tell you.”
Sitting under the ubiquitous photo of her husband surrounded by Israeli prison guards with handcuffed hands held high, she glowingly reports that he is using his time in prison to enrich himself intellectually.
He is a ferocious reader, consuming books in English, Arabic, Hebrew and French on topics ranging from French colonial rule in Algeria to the latest biographies of the former US president Bill Clinton and Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister. He also has a deep respect for the work of Paulo Coehlo and the Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Liebowitz. Additionally, Barghouti has written two books and completed his PhD from the University of Cairo entitled, The Legislative and Political Performance of the Palestinian Legislative Council and its Contribution to the Democratic Process in Palestine from 1996 to 2008. His doctorate, like the recent book, was smuggled out of jail one page at a time and took years to complete.
In addition to maintaining public and international pressure on Palestinian and Israeli leaders for the release of her husband, Fadwa has had to raise her family without a father. One of their three sons is now living in the United Kingdom while completing his higher education. His other two sons and one daughter live in the West Bank and are known in Ramallah for their active social lives and lack of interest in Palestinian national politics. Fadwa’s dedication to her husband is demonstrated in the romantic language used to describe his meaning to the Palestinian people.
“Marwan Barghouti is the natural leader of the Palestinian people,” Fadwa said. “In opinion polls, he is regularly shown to be the choice of Palestinians because of his adherence to the two-state solution, his fight against corruption and for the rights of women and democracy. The people want Marwan Barghouti to lead them in their fight against occupation.”
Palestinians are exhausted from the emotional and physical toll of the Second Intifada. Most express dismay at the infighting that has plagued the political establishment since the 2006 fallout between Hamas and Fatah but offer little solution for dealing with it. There is also a sense that the political establishment is no longer working in the interests of the people despite the highly popular attempt to achieve statehood recognition at the United Nations earlier this year, which Barghouti supported from jail.
“I think what is needed now from the leadership is to have honesty and self-reflection. In a way, this is one of the strengths of Marwan Barghouti in that he is honest with Palestinians. He doesn’t b******* us. We are sick and tired of Palestinian leaders who [do],” said Majd Abdel Hamid, who is part of the March 15th youth movement that demanded reconciliation of political factions earlier this year after the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia reshaped the Middle East. He does not support any Palestinian political party, like many in the March 15th movement, but believes that Barghouti has the power to open a new chapter in the Palestinian national struggle if only he is released from jail.
Dancing around the subject of the recent prisoner swap, Fadwa Barghouti remains confident that the current political leadership is afraid of a free Barghouti. For five years she was told by Fatah and Hamas leaders that her husband’s freedom would come in the form of the captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. But, at the last minute, a month before the controversial deal between Hamas and Israel was signed in Egypt, Barghouti, along with nine other senior political prisoners, were dropped from this list.
“I believe that there was a weak attempt in the prisoners’ swap to free my husband,” Fadwa said, asserting that securing her husband’s release was indeed possible. “I am talking about the Palestinian leadership of Hamas and Fatah. The people have been demanding his release for the last 10 years and they simply ignored the people’s will.”
Indeed, Marwan Barghouti is often cited as a potential replacement for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Barghouti along with Kadoura Fares and Mohammad Dahlan threatened to begin an independent party called Al-Mustaqbal (The Future) in 2005 after Abbas offered Barghouti second place in Fatah despite clear indications that Barghouti would win national election. Ultimately, according to Fares, Barghouti felt that a second party would harm Palestinian unity and ran on the Fatah party ticket, securing a seat in the PLC as a Fatah member.
Due to the belief that Barghouti would be part of the recent prisoner swap, the grassroots movement to free him has lost momentum in recent years.
But, according to Fadwa Barghouti, things have changed and with the release of his new book there are renewed efforts to pressure the Palestinian leadership to negotiate his release. The Free Marwan Barghouti campaign is planning to stage several demonstrations in March under the banner that Palestinians refuse negotiations with Israel without a free Barghouti to lead them.
“The pressure is on the politicians, all the politicians, to release Marwan if they want to move forward with negotiations with Israel,” Fadwa told me. “Palestinians want their leader to move them forward and the political establishment will have to deal with this reality in the new year.”
Whenever discussions arise about Marwan Barghouti in Israel or Palestine, one name is unavoidable: Nelson Mandela. In the 1990s, dovish Israeli politicians and political thinkers such as Uri Avnery began calling Barghouti Palestine’s Mandela. The comparison is not without merit: both leaders have refused to swear off armed resistance, both have spent long periods of time in jail, unwilling to cooperate with authorities, and both have enjoyed a unique loyalty from their people that has transcended political affiliations. Israeli society will continue to see Barghouti as a symbol of the violent Second Intifada, but after his inevitable release, they will likely be seeing him sitting at a negotiations table working to end the conflict and dismantle the Israeli occupation.
After the statehood campaign in the UN that failed to achieve independence, Palestinians are left with a power vacuum and a tough road to reconciliation. Now, more than ever, a leader is required to bring Palestine’s political factions together. When asked who might be the leader to open a new chapter in Palestinian politics, Kadura Fares paused, and took a long drag from his ever present cigarette, “it is not necessarily one individual who can do that with the snap of his fingers. Abu Mazen tried, he did a lot, but it was not enough, but I do think that Marwan could be the person.”
Joseph Dana is a journalist based in Ramallah.