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Popularity of Palestine's heir apparent endures

Some Palestinians see jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti as the only man who can heal internal divisions
Palestinian West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti gestures as he arrives in the Tel Aviv district court in May 2004 (AFP)

Last week marked 12 years since the Israeli army arrested Palestinian political leader Marwan Barghouti in Ramallah.

The 54-year-old has languished in Hadarim prison in central Israel since, but the long stint has not dimmed his popularity. Polls released in March showed that if fresh elections were held today, Barghouti would have no problem beating current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas or Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in a presidential vote.

Barghouti’s rise in Fatah, the governing party of the Palestinian Authority, started at an early age. Born in 1959 in the West Bank village of Kobar, he joined Fatah in 1974 at age 15. Just three years later, he had been arrested once for party participation and by his late twenties he emerged as a prominent member of Fatah Youth Movement (Shabiba) which rose to power while Yasser Arafat and other party leaders were exiled in Tunisia.  

Arrest and detention

Barghouti helped lead the first Intifada and was banished to Jordan in 1987. After the Oslo Accords allowed him to return to the West Bank, he was quickly elected secretary general of Fatah in the West Bank, joining the Palestinian parliament at the top of the Fatah list two years later.

The expansion of Barghouti’s political power came to a sudden halt in 2002 when he was arrested and charged for leading the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a paramilitary group affiliated with Fatah, as well as facilitating 37 separate attacks on civilians and members of the Israeli armed forces. Although Barghouti’s defense argued that both his trial and court were illegitimate under international law, he was convicted of five counts of murder and sentenced to five consecutive life sentences, plus 40 years for extra measure.

Despite being in prison, Barghouti has remained in the public eye, particularly since the emergence of an international campaign for his release led by his wife, Fadwa. Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research  (PCPSR), says Barghouti’s time in prison has been “very good to him.”

In a July 2000 public opinion poll conducted by the PCPSR, Barghouti’s support was too small to register among a list of possible vice presidential candidates. Just a year later, he had become the third most popular Palestinian political figure behind Yasser Arafat.

“After the eruption of the second Intifada, Barghouti became the most popular figure, [because of] his role and leadership in it,” Shikaki said.

The Palestinian Authority’s Fatah government lionizes Barghouti, and he sits atop most official lists of highly prized Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails. A 2013 pamphlet issued by the PA’s Ministry of Detainees describes Barghouti as “a stubborn man for the truth, a realist to the point of provocation, a believer in democracy and political multiplicity” who “has no dream but that of freedom and independence.”

“[Barghouti] is a fighter for peace, not terrorism,” Saleh Nazzal, chief of staff to the Minister of Detainees told MEE. “Barghouti is a symbol of the fight of the Palestinian people.”

Limited support

Qaddura Fares, chairman of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society and a close friend of Barghouti’s, recognizes however that his importance to the PA stems largely from his connection to Fatah. “People from Hamas maybe see Barghouti as the most important [figure],” says Fares.

Similarly, among supporters of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, imprisoned PFLP Secretary General Ahmad Saadat may hold primacy.  In fact, says Ziad Khalil Abu Zayyad, a political analyst and activist in East Jerusalem, “if Barghouti would be released... I don’t see it taking place without Ahmad Saadat.”

The issue of Palestinian prisoners release holds powerful significance across the political spectrum.  According to PCPSR polls, support for negotiating with the Israeli government swings dramatically when the option of any high-level prisoner release is introduced, especially if Barghouti is the prisoner in question.

Shikak says that Barghouti also has support some support within Hamas. “There was a time... when we asked people who would be good for reconciliation [between Fatah and Hamas], and certainly Barghouti was considered to be the best man for that.”

Many Palestinians are hopeful that Barghouti’s presidential candidacy could heal some of the internal divides in Palestinian politics because of his broad popularity.  Of particular importance is the gulf between Fatah and Hamas that peaked with the 2007 split of the Palestinian leadership into the Fatah administration of the West Bank and the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip.

Barghouti has signaled his interest in reconciliation before. In 2006, he was a signatory to the National Conciliation Document of the Prisoners that called for the establishment of an independent state of Palestine with “a national unity government” at the helm. The Prisoners’ Document proposed the election of a new PLO legislature “in a manner that secures the representation of all Palestinian national and Islamic forces, factions and parties and all sectors of our people.”

The two-state saviour?

While popular support for Marwan Barghouti’s release and potential presidential candidacy is evident, what’s less clear is what Barghouti’s return from prison would mean for Palestinian politics.  Marwan has sent messages from prison stating his support for peaceful resistance and a two-state solution, and Fares, who says he represents Barghouti’s views “100%,” claims that Barghouti’s focus is now entirely on promoting a two-state settlement to the peace negotiations.

“I think that he could... save the option of two states,” says Fares, who convinced Barghouti in 2005 to call off his presidential candidacy, paving the way to victory for current PA President Mahmoud Abbas.  “Unfortunately, the time is running out quickly.  I don’t think in three or four years it will be possible to talk about two states for two people".

Barghouti ended the brief candidacy he launched from his prison cell and threw his support behind Abbas, all but ensuring the latter’s election to replace the recently deceased Yasser Arafat.

Zayyad, the East Jerusalem political analyst, told MEE that Barghouti’s support for peaceful resistance while in prison may be part of a political calculation.

“Barghouti … is a pragmatic person,” says Abu Zayyad. “The events of each period affect the way he chooses to resist. Sometimes it is popular resistance, others times armed resistance or lastly peaceful resistance.”

One hope for Barghouti’s release comes from the possibility of electing him president while he’s still in prison. A December 2013 poll from PCPSR showed Barghouti winning a matchup against current Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh 61-34; in a three-way race between Barghouti, Haniyeh, and Abbas, Barghouti would win again with 40% of the overall vote.  

“Making someone who is imprisoned by Israel as the president of occupied Palestine would create a huge pressure on Israel and the international community,” says Zayyad.

Whether or not Barghouti is released, Fares says that his leadership of Palestinian resistance will continue. “Just because Barghouti is still in jail, it doesn’t mean Palestinians can’t have an Intifada. He will be with us, even from prison.”