Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Behind Bars: Marwan al Barghouti, ‘The Next Palestinian President’ | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Tel Aviv, Asharq Al-Awsat- Marwan al Barghouti, the leader of the Fatah movement who many Palestinians regard as their next leader has been fighting from his prison cell to see his eldest son, Qassim. For 12 months he has been battling for this cause and it has finally succeeded, however still remains incomplete. The Israeli authorities have refused to transfer Qassim, who is also in an Israeli prison, to the one in which his father is held. But all the cruelty and harshness of prison cannot be compared to Marwan al Barghouti’s concern as a father for his imprisoned son. Al Barghouti remains stoic and holds steadfast despite the conditions in prison, which are already hard enough. The fact that his son is detained as well transforms this fortitude into a stubbornness that signifies the repression of frustration.

Israel knows this feeling well; dozens of lectures given by psychology experts have taught wardens how to wage wars like these on the Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. These are not just any prisons and the inmates are not simply prisoners. There are 11,000 prisoners and they represent a generation of Palestinian resistance figures who will one day take over the Palestinian leadership. As such, thousands like them have graduated from Israeli prisons.

Marwan al Barghouti is one of the prominent amongst these figures. He is a distinguished political figure whose name is mentioned as the possible up-and-coming Palestinian leader in Israel and even worldwide. All the opinion polls that have been published recently have hailed him a leader. And yet the revenge launched upon him, the psychological and physical torture that he is subjected to would take books to convey. Perhaps the harshest of which is what they are subjecting him to with regards his son. After all these long months in which he has suffered without his son, sensing that they were using Qassim in their battle against him, they finally agreed to transfer his son to the same prison in which he was held but insisted on keeping them apart even though Qassim was brought to the same section in the Hadarim Detention Center. Still, the son was forbidden to move into the cell with his father. Two weeks later they moved Qassim to another prison. Al Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, who is an attorney only managed to see him five years after his imprisonment.

This is but one dimension of al Barghouti’s plight, yet another senior-ranking Palestinian prisoner in Israel. Next month will mark the five-year anniversary since his imprisonment and yet not a day passes without his name dominating newspaper headlines, in Israel as well. He is the tortured prisoner and the leader who nominated himself to compete with Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) for the Palestinian Authority presidency. He was behind the Palestinian National Reconciliation document and while he is imprisoned, he still remains an active contributor to the cause of stopping the Palestinian infighting. Members of the Palestinian leadership visit him seeking counsel on a number of issues, and his opinion has proven to have been crucial in many cases.

Recently al Barghouti was visited by the Israeli leftist Haim Oron, who was said to be representing the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (a claim that he denied). However, the spotlight shone on al Barghouti when Olmert requested from former Deputy Head of the General Security, Gideon Ezra, to include al Barghouti’s name within the exchange framework in return for Gilad Shalit – a demand that receives notable support in Israel.

The Palestinian president has called for al Barghouti’s release a number of times in his meetings with Olmert, as has Khaled Meshaal, head of the Hamas bureau. Since press interviews are completely forbidden, to find out about al Barghouti life’s in prison, how he spends his days, what he thinks about and how he is capable of having such a strong influence on Palestinian political life while being imprisoned, surrounding sources and friends were interviewed.

Born in 1959 to a poor family in the village Kobr in Ramallah, Marwan al Barghouti’s father was a simple peasant and his mother a housewife. He used to encounter the Israeli occupation every day as a young boy when he used to walk from his house to the neighboring village in Beir Zeit where he went to school. From his first brush with the occupation, he assumed a position of responsibility in the student movement and participating in demonstrations so that he was always wanted by the intelligence authorities. This resistance in time evolved to become represented as the Fatah movement.

The road to prison was a short one, arrested when he was 15 years old; al Barghouti was sentenced to four years of imprisonment after being convicted of making Molotov cocktails. While in prison, he focused on two things; completing his secondary school education to obtain a school degree, and to learn the Hebrew language and learn what lay beneath the surface of the Jewish state and its people. Upon his release from prison, al Barghouti enrolled in Beir Zeit University where he studied history and political science for his bachelor’s degree and where he received a Masters in International Relations. His studies were accompanied with dynamic political activities, coinciding with the first Intifada where he assumed an active role as president of the university’s student union.

Recognizing the threat he posed, the occupation removed him from the West Bank and sent him to Jordan, as they did with many of his generation of Fatah loyalists and others. He spent a year there following-up on the progression of the Intifada and those who were wounded by it after which he moved to Tunisia to work with Intifada head Khalil al-Wazir [Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) military chief], also known as Abu Jihad, and the Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

During the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, al Barghouti began to gain recognition as one of the proponents of peace, supporting the Oslo Accords as a historical doorway that could be the start of attaining national rights for the Palestinian people. In 1993, he returned to the Palestinian territories with Yasser Arafat. He was careful to ensure his interaction with Israelis benefiting from his knowledge of the Hebrew language and from his studies.

It was after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing extremist that al Barghouti became aware that the Israeli society was divided into two; those who were keen for peace, and those who were not concerned with it in any way. He came to a realization that not many others were aware of; that Palestinians could contribute to the Israeli internal debate to fortify the Israeli camp that was for peace by directing positive messages to the people of Israel from the Palestinian side.

Israel took a sharp turn to the right with the victory of Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister, which hampered the efforts of al Barghouti and those who followed his same line of thought. They knew that Israel would require a new round of resistance to be persuaded to end the occupation. The sparks of resistance flew with the operations carried out in May 2000, in commemoration of the Nakba [1948 war, also referred to as the ‘catastrophe’ and the ‘disaster’] – which marked the beginning of the real Intifada.

Al Barghouti’s defense lawyer and personal friend, Jawad Boulos said in his interview with Asharq Al Awsat that, “Marwan was convinced that resistance was not necessarily a condition to achieve gains. He approached the new Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, calling for a serious new step towards goodwill. In accordance with the implementation of the Oslo Accords, Isreal was supposed to withdraw from three villages in Jerusalem. On that day, al Barghouti told Yossi Beilin, who was a minister in the Labor Party government at the time and an envoy to Barak, it is within your hands to make the commemoration of the Nakba a peaceful celebration, on condition that you withdraw from the three villages, and you could make it the beginning of an uprising against you.”

When Barak refused the demand, following the right-wing approach that rejected the implementation of the accords, al Barghouti and his comrades understood that Israel had intention of completing the peaceful march. Matters became worse when the Camp David negotiations between Barak and Arafat failed, followed by Barak allowing the opposition leader of the time, Ariel Sharon to make a deliberately provocative visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque’s courtyard [the Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem]. The Intifada exploded with full force.

Many have wondered how al Barghouti switched sides from the peaceful camp, even the Oslo camp, to that of resistance and armed resistance. A source close to al Barghouti said that the latter had felt that Hamas and the Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine] were dominating the street by virtue of resistance, thus he believed that Fatah should become proactive and lead the Intifada. He took the initiative to form the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, a capable organization, as the armed wing of Fatah – he was supportive of this resistance. The Fatah fighters executed a number of broad-scale military operations, such as attacking various military borders, killing many troops and assassinating several Israeli intelligence officials who were killed at the hands of Palestinian double agents whom Fatah managed to recruit, promising them amnesty if they executed such operations.

In investigations with many Palestinian detainees, the name Marwan al Barghouti was frequently repeated as one of the proponents and financers of these operations. Numerous Israeli assassination attempts failed, however they succeeded in arresting him on 15th April 2002, after being tipped as to his exact location. According Boulos, the Israeli authorities did not know what to do with Marwan; should they implement administrative detention, or exile him, or put him on trial? The matter was resolved with the decision to try him in court not because it had incriminating evidence against him but because the other alternative would have caused an uproar against Israel within the state itself, and internationally.

Taking place in a civilian court in Tel Aviv, the trial resembled a theatrical farce. The prosecution made accusations that would have sentenced him 59 years to a lifetime of imprisonment. He was accused of being the leader of Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, of killing 26 Israelis and the one behind 33 bombing operations. The witnesses against him were mainly Israeli security personnel and right-wing activists and extremists. Even the judges in court did not accept the accusations and rejected most of them so that at the end of the trial they declared him innocent of killing 21 Israelis and all the bombings. In one incident they brought in a police officer to testify as a witness to a bombing operation that Marwan had nothing to do with, at which point he turned to ask the judge, “I’d like to understand, what is my connection to this matter?” to which the Presiding Chief Judge, Sarah Zerota replied, “I, too, would like to understand.”

The Israeli authorities rallied up the right-wing forces and demonstrators to attend all the hearings, among them members of Israeli families who were bereaving their loved ones whom they lost in the bombings. Insults and threats were hurled at al Barghouti with such venom that led Jawad Boulos to cry out to the court, “We fear for our lives!”

But al Barghouti adopted an approach similar to Nelson Mandela’s, considering the trial to be an illegitimate political one, refusing to recognize it and transforming it into an arena for a political struggle where the occupation was held on trial, rather than himself. The trial received wide international attention and support for al Barghouti – even in Israel. Attending all the court sessions was a delegation from the French parliament comprised of six MPs, knowing that all Barghouti is the president of the Franco-Palestinian Friendship House (MAFPA), in addition to two visits by the prominent lawyer, Gisele Halimi, 85 years old, famous for defending the Algerian rebels in French prisons. Hundreds of supporters, both Israeli and Palestinian, participated in solidarity demonstrations with every court hearing. This al Barghouti and his lawyer succeeded in transforming it into a political court despite Israeli efforts to portray him as a “terrorist” and “civilian murderer”.

Al Barghouti played a strong role in this arena where he used to direct words and responses to the rightist demonstrators and witnesses saying, “You are victims and your government is deceiving you,” “you do not know the reality of what is happening, go to the West Bank and see how our people live,” and “I am a man of peace but peace cannot be achieved without ending the occupation.”

From the first day of his capture, investigators started to torture him physically and psychologically. They deprived him of sleep and interrogated him day and night continuously and prevented him from seeing his lawyer for months. They put him in a tiny moldy cell, 2.5 meters in length and 1.5 meters wide with only a tiny window that was barred by a wooden plank. He never saw any sunlight. The toilet was basically a hole in the ground. He was not allowed to see his wife and children for five years and when it was finally permitted, he was not allowed to touch or kiss and hug them. The wardens took it as an occasion to degrade and insult him, making him march in a line between them as they verbally abused and jeered at him.

Even after he was convicted in court and sentenced to a lifetime in prison five times over with an added extra 40 years and moved him from detention centers to an official prison, he was still being subjected to further torture. He was moved to another prison and punished for trivial reasons and banned from watching television or listening to the radio. Then he was returned to the prison cell, separated from his friends and comrades and not allowed any visitors. He was later placed in solitary confinement for a number of years.

It is only today, or more accurately in the past few months that his living conditions have somewhat improved. He is currently held at a modern section of Hadarim prison in a section with 200 prisoners spread over 60 rooms. Each room has a two-person capacity but is crammed with three. Inside the room is a television set and satellite TV that is tuned to the channels that the prison administration approves. Al Barghouti reads what is available and the prison allows him books and three Israeli newspapers.

He starts his day with an hour of exercise followed by breakfast after which he immerses himself in reading. He is concerned with improving his Hebrew, English and Arabic and reads for 10 hours a day having recently read Bill Clinton’s biography in English; ‘Aravim Tovim’ (Good Arabs) by Hillel Cohen, which recounts the activity of Israeli security and intelligence agencies among Israeli Arabs immediately after 1948; Edward Said’s books, and Hebrew books on Israel, its politics and its policies etc.

Responding to the question as to how Marwan was able to exert such a significant political influence while he was in prison and whether he was allowed visitors and permitted to send and receive letters and whether it had to be under Israeli approval and supervision, his lawyer Jawad Boulos said, “Marwan al Barghouti, as well as other detainees, are subjected to harsh conditions of imprisonment, however despite this difficulty and suffering the Palestinian Prisoners Movement has managed to have an impact in setting the tempo on the Palestinian street. All the leaders of the Palestinian factions play a similar role at all times. Israel cannot resist this in a comprehensive manner even if it tried. Marwan particularly stands out because he is an extraordinary innovator and brilliant thinker and active in following up on events and proposing solutions. He has a huge and unique influence.”

It is well known that al Barghouti initiatives enabled him to establish a special relationship with Hamas and he is able to communicate with its leadership well. The secret being that, according to Boulos, “he is absolutely straightforward with it [Hamas] on the one hand, and is truly democratic on the other.” Clarifying it further, he said, “Marwan has a clear political strategy that differs from what Hamas proposes. He is for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, in accordance with the Arab initiative that is internationally legitimate. A state that is democratic, pluralistic and liberal. However, at the same time he regards Hamas as a legitimate political faction that won the elections and has the right to govern, demonstrate its capabilities and implement its plan, after which the people will be the judges of its performance.

Marwan follows the former slogan ‘those who share blood also share decisions.’ This is why he stood against the embargo and the severance of relations and when he found out about the infighting, he established a mechanism to settle matters by highlighting roles and values. His primary view is that the Palestinian people’s main problem does not lie in this or that faction but rather in the occupation. Through his involvement with the Prisoners document [Palestinian National Reconciliation document] he set the foundation for common ground between Fatah and Hamas and the rest of the factions, for whom Marwan reserves respect. This was based on the principle of ‘two states for two people’ and on the 1967 borders, within which the resistance will be contained and that the PLO, which has been and will always be the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, will be the one to undertake the negotiations. We have seen how this document has transformed to become the political program for all the Palestinian people.

Marwan al Barghouti’s run for presidency against Abu Mazen is regarded as a division of the roles between the two in the eyes of his lawyer who said, “Following the death of Yasser Arafat, there was a lot of external pressure from a number of parties on Mahmoud Abbas which contained threats that he had to adopt a different approach from that of Arafat or else he will suffer the same fate as the late Palestinian president: the siege, restriction and abuse that we are all familiar with. These pressures were blatant and almost announced – and thus they started exploiting Fatah’s role in leading the Palestinian people. Marwan is renowned for his vision of the crucial role that Fatah plays in the development of the national project. As such, I believe that Marwan al Barghouti provided an alternative to block pressures and strengthen Abu Mazen and protect the status of Fatah. But this was not achieved by distributing roles between himself and Abu Mazen, he did this independently. He also had more goals on the national agenda; he wanted to assert a political stand in front of the world to say that the Palestinian prisoner is not a criminal but rather is an activist and a political leader who can be elected while in prison so that no one would dare to exert political pressure on him.”

Al Barghouti withdrew from the elections only after he got his message across to the world through the electoral battle. He affirms that he never sought to undermine President Abu Mazen’s power and has been known to have repeatedly said, “He is the leader of Fatah and the leader of the PLO and our leader. There are special relations that bind me to him by virtue of the fact that the national responsibility necessitates that every Palestinian must support his leader, fortify him and fight against anything that undermines or weakens his rank. Therefore, it’s not for the president only but for Palestine and its people and interests.”

Marwan al Barghouti even played a role and had an influence on the Mecca Declaration. A strong advocate for Palestinian national unity, he strives to remove all the obstacles in the way. For him, it is not simply about slogans for he truly believes that it is a critical tool to end the occupation and the practices that are unfolding on the ground such as the settlements, the wall and the blockade – it is his belief that the absence of unity only serves the occupation. As such, not only did he support the Mecca Declaration, he played an active and important role in it.

According to Boulos, al Barghouti is aware that the Palestinian situation is currently very complex and the Palestinians cannot bear to hear about the absence of unity in circumstances such as these, especially with the infighting and the fact that the unity is still rejected by Israel and the US who are threatening to maintain the embargo. The lawyer said, “I think he believes in fortifying the unity with a realistic political program that would lift the embargo on Palestine and spread the message of peace to Israelis whom al Barghouti believes are victims of the policies of their leadership, victims who are second only to the Palestinians. He always calls for peace upholding that there can be no peace with the occupation. Al Barghouti also advocates the spread and implementation of democratic concepts within Palestine and among its people so that the world may see that we are part of the civilized world and so the Palestinians may see that what is being built is an authority, rule and administration for the people.”

The question remains: Does al Barghouti believe he is closer to freedom, especially with former Deputy Head of the General Security, Gideon Ezra, calling for his freedom? Boulos responded to that by saying, “Firstly, it is my belief that Marwan al Barghouti’s arrest is illegal and a grave mistake on Israel’s part – Marwan is part of the solution, not the conflict. Secondly, the whole Palestinian population in its entirety demanded the release of Marwan al Barghouti, as did various official, parliamentary and human rights bodies who are still calling for his immediate release. This is ion addition to the Palestinian president and all the Palestinian factions who have placed him at the top of their list – especially in light of the so-called Gilad Shalit deal. Regarding Gideon Ezra, he is operating on the Israeli logic of ‘the devil you know’ and thus is demanding that Marwan’s name be included in the Gilad Shalit deal, considering him to be the strongest in the face of Hamas.”

Boulos concluded, “From another standpoint, we know that all the Palestinian prisoners dream of freedom, placing it as a goal and hope, and Marwan is one of them. They know that sooner or later they will be released at the end of their sentences. Palestinian prisoners are not just a few thousand prisoners; every Palestinian house has one or more family members who are detained. A people who have families in jails; this is not natural. If they are not released in this deal then they will be in a second or a third one or as part of the process of a political breakthrough. The important thing is they will all be released in to freedom.”