The fall and rise of Marwan Barghouti

Long regarded as a future leader of Palestine, Marwan Barghouti has been imprisoned by Israel since 2002. What would his release mean for the future of the Middle East?

In the early hours of 5 March 2002, a 21-year-old officer in the Palestinian navy stood across the street from the Sea Food Market restaurant in downtown Tel Aviv carrying an M16 rifle, grenades and a knife.

As he walked from the Maariv bridge, closing in on the restaurant, Ibrahim Hassouna fired at the diners inside, shattering the glass door and windows. Two grenades thrown into the fleeing crowd fell as duds to the floor but, once his gun jammed, Hassouna drew his knife. He killed two civilians and stabbed a police officer to death by the time Israeli security forces shot him.

Hassouna was a member of Kataib Shuhada Al-Aqsa, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an underground terrorist organisation affiliated with Fatah and Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority (PA). Named after the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which stood in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City, the militant group had mobilised at the start of the Second Intifada to drive out Israeli forces and settlers from the West Bank and Gaza. Before the attack, Hassouna filmed a video explaining his actions and aspiration for martyrdom. He travelled to the restaurant with two men who remained in the vehicle amid the sound of gunfire and sirens. At 3 a.m., Israeli prosecutors later alleged, one of them phoned Marwan Barghouti to confirm that the attack had taken place.

Marwan Barghouti was a charismatic lieutenant and potential successor to Yasser Arafat, who led resistance from the streets of Gaza and the West Bank through the 1990s before becoming a supporter of the two-state solution presented by the Oslo Accords. Israeli security services regarded him as the ‘chief of staff of the Intifada’ for his leadership of militant forces. Barghouti had long denied that he was a commander of the Al-Aqsa Brigades but, to Israeli intelligence, the phone call on the night of the Sea Food Market attack firmly established his involvement with the group.

Imprisoned for his connection to terror attacks during the Second Intifada, Barghouti has been an inescapable shadow over discussions about the future of Palestine and Israel for over two decades. He consistently tops polls on the question of succession once Mahmoud Abbas, the 88-year-old leader of the Palestinian Authority, leaves office. He has been cited by many figures, including Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu, as a ‘Palestinian Mandela’, who could assemble disparate political groups as the core of an independent Palestine. On the Israeli right, however, Barghouti’s associations with terror delegitimise any claim he might have to lead. ‘Calling Barghouti a leader and parliamentarian is like calling Assad a paediatrician’, Benjamin Netanyahu said in 2017, in reference to the Syrian president’s earlier role as a doctor.

The possibility of Barghouti’s release, whether in exchange for hostages or as part of a political settlement, has been a recurring topic since his arrest; Israel’s destructive war in Gaza has only increased the salience of his possible role. The prospect and opportunities of his freedom are now conjoined with the inescapable question of ‘What comes next?’ for many Palestinians, Israelis, and Western observers. In early February 2024, Hamas rejected a truce offer because Barghouti would not be released under the terms. ‘There is no other solution but a complete and final victory,’ Netanyahu declared in response to Hamas’ counterproposal.

After the 7 October massacre, and the drastic failure to predict Hamas’ attack, Netanyahu is particularly wary of his own fraught history with the release of Palestinian prisoners. In 2011 Israel released Yahya Sinwar, the military leader of Hamas, along with 1,025 other prisoners, in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israel Defence Forces (IDF) soldier kidnapped in 2006. Despite hopes that he had moderated his stance, Sinwar orchestrated the 7 October attacks in which over 1,200 Israelis were murdered and 253 hostages were taken. ‘Sinwar was treated in Israel for brain cancer and went back and did a second Holocaust,’ Liran Berman, whose twin brothers were kidnapped from a kibbutz near the Gaza border, told me – referring to surgery Sinwar received during his imprisonment. ‘I’m not very hopeful that Barghouti will lead the Palestinian people to a better future.’

Marwan Barghouti’s life is entwined with the turbulent path of Palestinian nationhood – from aspiration to despair, through violence and negotiation. Born in 1959 in a village outside Ramallah in the West Bank – eight years before the occupation by Israel after the Six Day War – Barghouti joined Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) at 15. He came from a large family in the clan-rooted politics of Palestine and many of his relatives are active in the nationalist cause. At 18, Barghouti was imprisoned for involvement with militant groups and he completed his high school diploma, and learned Hebrew, in prison.

After his release, Barghouti enrolled at Birzeit University and became the leader of the student council. ‘Marwan used to give speeches urging people to go out and demonstrate and telling them what they were resisting: the settlements, the arrests, the destruction,’ recalled Said Ghazali, a fellow student council member. ‘He is charismatic, a good orator and he understands the power of body language when he speaks.’

In 1989 Barghouti joined the Fatah Revolutionary Council as its youngest member. During the First Intifada, in 1987, he became a protest leader in the West Bank and was eventually deported to Jordan. He returned from exile in 1994 and was elected to the Palestinian legislature as a representative from Ramallah in 1996.

The Oslo Accords, signed in 1993 by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, set in motion a gradual transfer of governing authority to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinian politics featured a sprawling group of nationalist factions, Islamist groups, warlords and clans jockeying for power in the arena opened by the accords. Around Arafat was the old guard of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, who had returned with him from exile in Tunis. Barghouti was a rising star of a younger generation of activists who had grown up in the febrile environment of the occupied territories.

Barghouti’s faction within Fatah, Tanzim, was a grassroots organisation that arose in the 1990s in the West Bank as an armed wing of Arafat’s party. It was estimated that there were thousands of members, presenting both a core constituency within Fatah and a potential opposition to Arafat’s authority. Barghouti was a popular, energetic leader whose control of the street movement marked him apart from the older elite around Arafat. ‘When I met him, people pointed out to him how young I was,’ one associate remembered, ‘but Marwan didn’t care about age, he cared about ability.’

Barghouti was wary of division among the nationalist movements and the militancy that animated many of the younger generation. As the peace talks broke down and the street movements became restless towards the end of the 1990s, he sensed the resentment festering. ‘To avoid internal fighting’, he stated, ‘We need to save energy for confrontations with Israel which will be imminent later this year.’

Barghouti and the Tanzim were an enigma to outside observers, who understood the motivations and tactics of Arafat’s PLO but lacked intelligence on the homegrown nationalist movement. Since the 1970s, the CIA had built contacts in the PLO and assumed a central adjudicating role on security issues between them and the Israelis. Geoff O’Connell was the station chief in Tel Aviv from 1999 and led weekly meetings of the Israeli and Palestinian security services, some of which Barghouti attended. ‘His statements were logical, well-reasoned and moderate in comparison to the rhetoric flying around at the time,’ O’Connell reflected. ‘I believe Arafat feared him; groups like Tanzim loved him; and the PA security services respected, but were suspicious of him,’ he explained. ‘I think the Israelis found him a dilemma.’

The Second Intifada broke out in September 2000 after a provocative visit by Israeli politician Ariel Sharon to the Al-Aqsa compound on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Islam. ‘We tried seven years of intifada without negotiations, then seven years of negotiations without intifada. Perhaps it is time to try both simultaneously,’ Barghouti declared in November 2000. His leadership of the Second Intifada was one facet to his strategy for Palestinian statehood that intertwined violence and negotiation. He later told interrogators that he engaged in violence so that ‘in the future, he would be able to say of himself that he acted for peace and also in war, whereas other leaders did not dirty their hands. Thus he would gain the sympathy of the Palestinian people.’

The Israeli counteroffensive against the Intifada, beginning in late-March 2002, materialised as Operation Defensive Shield, the largest military operation in the West Bank since the Six-Day War in 1967. In Ramallah, the IDF pursued Barghouti for his connection to the Al-Aqsa Brigades. Israeli intelligence tracked his flight between safe houses through tapped phone calls and, 18 days after the start of the operation, an Israeli double agent inside Hamas confirmed Barghouti’s precise location.

A unit of the Duvdevan – an elite force in the IDF which operated behind enemy lines – quickly surrounded the area. ‘We closed off the structure, and a few minutes before we went in to carry out the searches, they told us the name of the operation was Ray of Light’, one soldier recalled. ‘That was enough for us: We knew that was the codename for the capture of Tanzim forces chairman Marwan Barghouti.’

‘I immediately arrived and took over command of the operation,’ Ilan Paz, head of the IDF in Ramallah, explained. ‘We had special units to penetrate the building but we didn’t have to use them. When Barghouti understood that he was surrounded, he came out peacefully.’

Barghouti’s capture was a major success for Operation Defensive Shield. He was put on trial two years after his arrest, though he publicly refused to recognise the legitimacy of the Israeli court. He was convicted on five counts of murder, as well as attempted murder, conspiracy to murder, and membership of a terrorist organisation.

Barghouti’s fall laid the groundwork for his emergence as a beacon of Palestinian resistance. His wife, Fadwa, and his children campaign for his release and international figures have championed his identity as the ‘Palestinian Mandela’ – even launching their push for his freedom from Robben Island. The image of Barghouti raising his cuffed hands in the air in an act of defiance at his trial has become a potent symbol of his martyrdom in the occupied territories, displayed on posters, flags, and walls.

In the wake of his arrest, Barghouti’s support surged and he has contemplated running for president of Palestine from prison. In 2005, after Arafat’s death, he broached running against Mahmoud Abbas but withdrew at the urging of his wife and political allies. Said Ghazali, who had attended Birzeit University with Barghouti, tore up the picture of him in his office, so furious was he at the squandered opportunity to challenge Abbas. Yet his popularity persists. In polls conducted before the 7 October attacks, Ismael Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas’ political wing, beat Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, 54 per cent to 36 per cent. Barghouti, however, in a hypothetical poll, defeated Haniyeh 61 per cent to 34 per cent.

‘What he really brings to the table is the prospect of two things Palestinians desperately need,’ Khaled Elgindy, a former advisor to the Palestinian leadership on negotiations, explained to me. ‘One is national leadership, and the second is national unity.’

The 2006 Palestinian Prisoners’ Document, organised by Barghouti and signed by Palestinian prisoners confined in Israeli jails, was a pivotal attempt at internal reconciliation amid escalating tensions between Fatah and Hamas. Omar H. Rahman, an analyst at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs and former journalist in Palestine, told me: ‘Palestinians broadly identify with the political prisoners and view imprisonment at the hands of Israel’s military occupation as a badge of patriotism.’ Implicitly acknowledging a two-state solution, the Prisoners’ Document – representing a diverse array of factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad – endorsed the Palestinians’ right to resist Israeli occupation through various means, including armed struggle against settlers and soldiers, while concurrently advocating for political reforms and the establishment of a national unity government.

The Prisoners’ Document encapsulated Barghouti’s appeal and power across the nationalist movement. He is a savvy political actor who understands his popularity but has also been conscious of the risk of alienating the Fatah establishment – despite his accusations of its corruption. ‘He’s that rare figure in Palestinian politics who transcends the factional divide in its worst moments of fragmentation,’ Rahman explained to me. ‘Hamas lacks a certain kind of international legitimacy and knows it can only play a supporting role in the Palestinian liberation movement. There needs to be someone else at the helm and Barghouti can be that, as he is respected by all factions.’

‘There is something new in him because he hasn’t governed and has always been a political figure,’ a senior Palestinian official and supporter of Barghouti, told me. Barghouti has enemies in the Palestinian Authority, however, and among other ambitious politicians who might hope to succeed the aging Abbas. If he is not released, the obstacles to translating popular support to actual governance would be considerable. One option could be that the two positions, concurrently held by Arafat and then Abbas, of chairman of the PLO and president of Palestine could be divided to allow someone else to conduct the administrative duties in the latter role while Barghouti has the symbolic mantle of the chairmanship.

In prison, Barghouti has read widely – including biographies of Israeli politicians – and earned a PhD in political science. His interpretation, expressed in an interview while in prison, of the road to Palestinian statehood focuses on the consolidation of the nationalist groups around a belief that ‘national unity is the sine qua non for victory by any liberation movement or oppressed people’. Negotiations, he argues, depend on an Israeli ‘de Gaulle or de Klerk’ and the careful use of violent resistance when necessary.

In Barghouti’s worldview, there is a scale of forceful action that the Palestinians could take, from mass demonstrations to terror attacks, to pressure the Israelis. ‘They can select the form of resistance most appropriate to each stage on the basis of their own intimate knowledge and experience of the struggle’, he has stated, ‘as they have done effectively many times before.’ The Second Intifada, he said to his interrogators after his arrest, ‘was supposed to be a popular uprising, but things got out of hand.’ He had wanted to restrict attacks to Israeli settlements and soldiers and not within the borders of Israel itself, he said, but often he could not control his forces.

Figures on the Israeli left have advocated for Barghouti’s release, citing his popularity and relative moderation on political violence; Shimon Peres indicated openness to releasing Barghouti during his campaign for the Israeli presidency in 2007. Ami Ayalon was head of the Shin Bet – Israel’s internal security service – in the years leading up to the Second Intifada and he disliked the spectacle of Barghouti’s trial. To Israelis, ‘he became a personal representation of all the evil, all the terror,’ Ayalon told me. ‘He became a leader because we transformed him into a leader.’ Before his detention, Barghouti had been a popular figure but part of a large political cast around Arafat. The imprisonment set him apart. ‘He is a living Shahid’, Ayalon said, using the term that denotes a martyr in Islam.

Since his election in 2005, Abbas’ support has plunged due to endemic corruption in the West Bank. Hamas also became unpopular for its mismanagement of Gaza before 7 October. ‘Not having a record has been really helpful in a period in which Palestinian progress has stalled,’ Michael Robbins, director of Arab Barometer said of Barghouti. ‘People project onto him what they want to think and that would be a real strength should he be released.’ On the eve of 7 October, 24 per cent of respondents in Gaza said they would vote for Haniyeh, 12 per cent for Abbas, and 32 per cent for Barghouti. In the West Bank, dissatisfaction with Abbas further benefitted Barghouti, who received 35 per cent support, with 11 per cent going to Haniyeh and only six per cent to Abbas….

Read full article at Engelsberg Ideas