Barghouti may be the one who can create peace with Israel ~ Sharif Nashashibi, The National.
The dispute between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) over the release of prisoners coincides with renewed calls to free Marwan Barghouti, undoubtedly the most prominent of them. An elected MP and senior figure in the Fatah movement – of which PA president Mahmoud Abbas is part – Barghouti has been incarcerated since 2002.
Israel has consistently refused to even consider his freedom, and has broken its promise to release the final batch of 104 Palestinian prisoners by the end of March. As Israel deems them lesser priorities, the likelihood of Barghouti’s release seems even more remote. As such, it is not enough to simply call for his freedom.
The best chance for his release is to hold presidential elections, in which Barghouti says he would participate. Opinion polls show that he would win, with his popularity greater than Mr Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.
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A presidential vote would leave Israel in the unprecedented position of having in one of its prisons an elected head of state. This would considerably increase international pressure for his release, and severely weaken arguments against doing so. The problem is, there are no elections on the horizon. Agreements between Hamas and Fatah in that regard have come and gone.
In any case, it is difficult to see how a nationwide vote could be carried out, given the split between Gaza and the West Bank, the deep distrust between the two main Palestinian factions, Israel’s siege of Gaza, its total separation of East Jerusalem from the West Bank, and its insatiable occupation, colonisation and fragmentation of the Palestinian territories. Previous elections were hampered by Israel under less severe circumstances.
Furthermore, both Hamas and Mr Abbas have the same incentive not to hold presidential elections, since both would lose to Barghouti. Also, Hamas has solidified its governance of Gaza, as has Mr Abbas over parts of the West Bank, so neither may want to risk their current positions (the latter’s term as president expired years ago and he has gone unchallenged since).
Hamas has the added issue that any electoral victory it achieves, or any participation in a national unity government, would be met with sanctions by Israel and the West, as happened when it won legislative elections in 2006. Thus it has little incentive to rejoin the democratic process, and no election is legitimate if it is not inclusive.
Nonetheless, all Palestinian factions have a duty to strive together to realise the democratic will of their people, not just because this right has been taken away from them, but because its national implications are greatly heightened by Barghouti’s potential participation.
Sometimes referred to as the Palestinian Nelson Mandela and “the leader-in-waiting”, he is seen as the person most able to heal divisions, achieve a peace deal with Israel and safeguard Palestinian rights. Barghouti earned great respect during the first and second intifadas as a man of the people who was at the forefront of their struggle.
His status rose further as a critic of corruption and human rights abuses under Yasser Arafat, and of the Fatah-led PA’s negotiating strategies and security cooperation with Israel. He has also called for national unity, and has mediated between Hamas and Fatah to this end. Palestinians thus identify him as someone who is not a lackey, and for whom national interests far outweigh party loyalty.
As with Mandela, imprisonment has increased Barghouti’s popularity, as he has paid a high price for the cause, having so far spent a total of 18 years in jail (as a result, he speaks fluent Hebrew). He has established relationships with Israeli politicians and peace groups.
Like Mandela, Barghouti believes in both a negotiated solution and peoples’ right to resist injustice “by all means approved by the UN charter and international law”. In other words, Israel can have peace or occupation, but not both.
This differentiates him from Hamas, which favours resistance over negotiation, and the PA, which takes the opposite stance. He thus garners a wider level of support, from Palestinians who believe in either or both strategies.
“I… strongly oppose attacks and the targeting of civilians inside Israel, our future neighbour,” said Barghouti. “I still seek peaceful coexistence between the equal and independent countries of Israel and Palestine, based on full withdrawal from Palestinian territories occupied in 1967.” However, “I reserve the right to protect myself, to resist the Israeli occupation of my country, and to fight for my freedom.”
Since Israel has long proven to be no peace partner, Barghouti advocates a multi-pronged approach to resistance. This includes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and referring Israel to the International Criminal Court. He is also against negotiating while Palestinian land continues to be colonised. “We should intensify and expand the popular resistance in a way that engages all factions and leaderships,” he said last year.
To much domestic frustration, Mr Abbas has neither endorsed the increasingly effective BDS, nor carried out repeated threats to join the ICC, nor stuck to his perfectly reasonable precondition that Israel halt settlement expansion before he resumes negotiations.
Barghouti’s popularity stops Israel from releasing him, but that is precisely why it should. He has the necessary trust and respect to unify his people and get their endorsement for a solution. This, arguably, cannot be said of any other Palestinian leader, and more Israeli politicians are acknowledging this.
As such, it is perhaps in everyone’s interests – including Israel’s – that he is released. It is argued that only Mandela could have managed South Africa’s delicate, peaceful transition from apartheid. Perhaps the same can be said of Barghouti.
Sharif Nashashibi is a journalist and analyst on Arab affairs