FOR years, the seemingly unsolvable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has prompted the question: is there not a Palestinian Nelson Mandela and an Israeli FW de Klerk who can step forward and negotiate a sustainable peace?
It seems obvious that this kind of visionary, popular leadership on the Palestinian side will not come from Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party, which controls the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, or from Hamas in Gaza.
But there is a 65-year-old man in an Israeli prison with that potential: Marwan Hasib Ibrahim Barghouti. He has been detained since 2002.
Just as Mandela was the leading figure of the ANC's military wing, Marwan Barghouti was the leader of Fatah's military wing, Tanzim. Both were co-founders of their movements' youth wings.
Barghouti was one of the leaders behind the first two major uprisings against Israel, the intifadas of 1987 and 2000.
Both were sentenced to life in prison for “terrorism" after deciding their efforts to negotiate over peace and freedom had reached a dead end. Barghouti did not defend himself against the charges, which included the murder of Israeli soldiers, and labelled the trial as illegitimate and unlawful.
Both leaders were/are intellectually very active and well-read — Barghouti has a master's degree in international relations, Mandela had a BA and LLB to his name. Barghouti is fluent in Hebrew and English.
It is particularly relevant that Barghouti, like Mandela, has a pragmatic approach, is not a fundamentalist and does not believe in war as an end in itself. He has published opinion articles in The Washington Post and The New York Times.
His wife, Fadwa Ibrahim, a legal scholar, leads the international campaign for his release, “Freedom for Marwan Barghouti, the Mandela of Palestine". The couple have a daughter and three sons.
Israel's military assault on Gaza is likely to significantly weaken the Hamas leadership, already unpopular among the people of Gaza. Mahmoud Abbas is 88 years old and his administration in the West Bank is seen as corrupt and ineffective, equally unpopular.
A previous Israeli prime minister, Shimon Peres, mentioned the possibility of Barghouti's release in 2007 but it was never implemented (similar to PW Botha with Mandela). The current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, certainly has no such plans but he is clearly not expected to survive politically for long. Hamas has demanded Barghouti's release more than once during prisoner exchanges but Israel has refused.
If the Israeli government eventually succumbs to domestic and international pressure and begins seeking peace in Gaza, the release of Palestinian political prisoners will have to be high on the priority list.
The question then becomes who can negotiate with authority on behalf of the Palestinians and who will govern Gaza when Hamas is incapacitated and Israel has withdrawn its forces.
In such a scenario, Barghouti could play an important role. Although he is from Fatah — he was elected to the Palestinian Authority as a Fatah candidate in 2006 — he has good relations with certain Hamas leaders and the Islamic Jihad movement. He has indeed advocated for an alliance between Fatah and Hamas, which have violently clashed with each other.
According to polls from the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, Barghouti is much more popular among Palestinians than Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas.
Throughout his imprisonment, Barghouti has remained politically active. He was one of the writers of a 2006 document issued on behalf of Palestinian prisoners from Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups. The document called for a Palestinian state within the borders as they were in 1967 and a mutual ceasefire.
Barghouti was born on June 6, 1959, in a village near Ramallah in the West Bank, Kobar. His father was a migrant worker in Lebanon.
♦ VWB ♦
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