The legitimacy of political leadership is often determined by the dedication a leader shows towards fulfilling the collectivist and nationalist desires of their people. With respect to leaders that are tasked with liberating their citizens from institutionalized injustice most, if not all, are forced to make unfavourable and often unjustifiable decisions with hopes of challenging and changing an unjust status quo. Such decisions require great sacrifice and a level of commitment incomprehensible to anyone who has been fortunate enough to live in a society free of systematic discrimination. If we reflect on some of the darkest moments in human history and the freedom fighters that led the movements to overcome them – the campaign for civil rights in the United States, Indian Independence, Apartheid South Africa and the fight for democracy in Burma – all had leaders that made great sacrifices to improve the plight of their people. Ghandi and Martin Luther King despite preaching pacifism to their people were assassinated for their attempt at achieving equality and all the aforementioned leaders were imprisoned for beliefs that in retrospect were completely justifiable.
The Palestinians have a comparable leader. One who despite being imprisoned since 2002 remains the most popular politician in Palestine, with recent polls suggesting that if elections were held tomorrow he would defeat Hamas Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh by 49.7% to 16.0% as well as the chairman of the organization by 51% to 16.2%, not to mention Palestianian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas by 33.2% to 26.9% (Haaretz). The numbers are a testament to his popularity and they appear to be growing. His name is Marwan Barghouti and he is widely considered the ‘Palestinian Mandela’ and the next President of Palestine. Currently, Barghouti is serving five life sentences after being convicted by an Israeli court for his role in organizing and leading the first and second intifadas.
This paper hopes to shed light on whether releasing Marwan Barghouti will help improve the chances of negotiating a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine through what many consider as his ability to help unify Hamas and Fatah. The first part of this paper will examine perspectives of Marwan Barghouti from both Israeli and Palestinian officials in an attempt to illuminate how he is perceived in relation to the broader Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Next, the rationale behind advocating for his release will be contrasted against the challenges his freedom poses to Israel. Then, I describe the ways in which his release could be negotiated, and ultimately how it will work to the benefit of both Israelis and Palestinians in terms of promoting peace. Finally, I reflect on my own personal observations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the lessons that can be learned from the South African experience. This paper posits that releasing Marwan Barghouti would enhance the prospects of reaching a peace agreement through his ability to unify Hamas and Fatah helping to end the political fragmentation that is currently impeding peace and polarizing the Palestinian public. Moreover, the paper asserts that the benefits of freeing Marwan Barghouti far outweigh keeping him incarcerated.
The current strategies being employed by both Israel and Palestine to end the world’s most protracted conflict have been virtually ineffective – the 2200 causalities in Operation Protective Edge are an attestation to this belief. New strategies characterized by uncomfortable concessions need to be pursued with the utmost vigour if Israel and Palestine are to transition from a past marked by death and destruction to a future marked by peace and empathy. The release of Marwan Barghouti is one such strategy that Israel can employ to signal to Palestine and the international community that they are serious about peace. Martin Linton a columnist for the Guardian gives substance to this belief stating, “It would take a really bold initiative by the Israelis to prove they are interested in peace. If they release Barghouti the world will recognise that they are serious. If they refuse, many will conclude they are not” (Linton). This is a view that is shared by both Israelis and Palestinians, left, right and centre. Alon Liel, a former Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Israel’s Ambassador to South Africa during Nelson Mandela’s presidency stated that, “From the point of view of uniting the Palestinians and leading them to real peace, Barghouti is very important” (Jeffay). Even Shimon Peres before being elected president in 2007 announced that he supported pardoning Barghouti despite failing to galvanize political action aimed at his release.
While on the one hand most Israelis know Barghouti as the architect of the first and second intifadas and his role in dispatching suicide bombers to a Tel Aviv fish market and a Jerusalem mall, some on the other hand many recognize the unique position Barghouti can play in terms of reaching a negotiated settlement. In an op-ed to ynet news, Amoon Shamosh in a heartfelt plea to the Israeli public to release Marwan Barghouti writes,“I am aware of his actions and trial, and it will not be easy to face the uproar such decisions would stir in Israel, but only such a bold move can jumpstart a car that has been stuck for 100 years and has caused so much death on our side and theirs” (Shamosh). Later stating that, “Only courageous and unacceptable measures can get us out of the anomaly of two tribes that have been killing each other’s members for more than 100 years and are fighting for the same land, which is filling up with graves” (Shamosh). On that account it seems that portions of the Israeli public are prepared for their government to pursue innovative strategies that present new ways of securing peace and security. As Shamosh suggests, difficult concessions will have to be made if the peace process is to be reinvigorated. Constructive dialogue coupled with urging the Israeli public to forgive Barghouti for the crimes he committed in the past could breathe new life into the peace talks.
The biggest incentive influencing the release of Barghouti is his ability to streamline Palestinian politics through promoting unity and urging for national interests to take priority over allegiance to political factions. However, at the same time the main factors in favour of Boughouti’s release are the same ones preventing it. Barghouti’s popularity coupled with his ability to unite Hamas and the PA makes him a credible threat to Israel due to his power to change the status quo profiting Palestine. Sharif Nashashibi reinforces this belief, stating in an Op-ed that, “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” (Nashashibi). The trust and respect Barghouti garnered was only won through demonstrating to his people that his willing to make sacrifices in the interests of his people - sacrifices that inevitably placed him in prison. Nashashibi goes on to state that, “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, peace transition from apartheid. Perhaps the same can be said about Barghouti” (Nashashibi). Shannon Ebrahim shares a similar view regarding how Barghouti’s popularity and potential to unite Palestinian politically threatens Israel when she states the following, which I believe is worth quoting at length;
His propensity to unite Fatah and Hamas into one powerful liberation movement insisting on a two state-solution based on the 1967 borders makes him a dangerous threat to Israel’s political establishment. Barghouti’s message is so powerful that Hamas has rallied behind him. . . . Palestinian unity threatens Israel’s strategy – which seems to be to delay peace talks, claiming to have no peace partner, while grabbing more land through settlements. (Ebrahim)
On top of Barghouti’s power to unify and to lead effectively, supporting why he should be released is his pragmatic political views, which have the potential to moderate extremism and reach a peaceful settlement. In recent months Barghouti has been a stalwart advocate of passive resistance, encouraging Palestinians to launch a third intifada characterized by non-violence and reminiscent of the Arab spring. Barghouti believes that non-violent protests will legitimize Palestinian demands by preventing Israel from castigating them as “terrorist activities,” which only discredits their efforts. A Palestinian, peaceful protest a long the lines of those witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt will raise awareness to the plight of Palestinians through dominating international headlines. In addition to calling for non-violent resistance movements, Barghouti’s political views are practical and achievable and best understood by the following quote in which he states, “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 and a just resolution to the plight of Palestinian refugees pursuant to the U.N. resolutions. I do not seek to destroy Israel but only to end its occupation of my country” (Kathrada). In addition to these opinions Barghouti calls for increased international support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction campaign (BDS) against Israel and end to America’s role as an arbiter in the peace talks stating that their steadfast support for Israel makes peaceful conflict resolution next to impossible. Barghouti is also proponent of the two state-solution stating simply “Yes to peace with the state of Israel. No to peace with the occupation” (Beaumont).
There are many ways for Marwan Barghouti’s release to be negotiated. The first and foremost being that President Benjamin Netanyahu could offer to pardon him, which would undoubtedly require a great deal of political and public pressure. With that said, the non-violent protests that Barghouti is calling for amongst the Palestinian public could focus their efforts on the imprisoned leader making his release their central rallying cry. Despite Barghouti condemning the role of the United States in peace talks, the country could have a unique role to play in influencing his release. The US could offer to release Jonathan Pollard an imprisoned Israeli spy in exchange for the release of Marwan Barghouti. This prisoner exchange would demonstrate the commitment of both Israel and the US in terms of initiating innovative strategies with the hopes of reaching peaceful compromises. Moreover, releasing Marwan Barghouti would also be a symbolic act of forgiveness and reconciliation. An act that recognizes that both sides have committed abhorrent acts and that people can, and should be forgiven if peace is to have a chance. Ahmed Kathrada substantiates this belief when he states,
Some make the unacceptable argument that prisoners should be released only after the peace between conflicting parties is concluded. This disregards what has been proven to be the case in other conflicts – that prisoners, once released, can be instrumental in achieving peace. The unconditional release of political prisoners is a powerful signal that the hardened enemies of yesterday are finally ready to become peace partners today (Kathrada).
With that said the American and Israeli public must pressure their governments to make the exchange, whether through protests or incorporating a “Release Marwan Barghouti” element to the popular BDS campaign. As the prime intermediary between the two states, the United States should propose and follow through with prisoner exchange in an effort to stimulate peace proposals that have long since stagnated.
To allay public fears surrounding Barghouti reverting back to, and inciting armed resistance, the Israeli Government could formulate a set of stipulations surrounding his release. Looking to the South African example, they could begin his release by placing him under house arrest while enabling him to meet with prominent Palestinian political officials to discuss conflict resolution strategies with the hopes of beginning a new round of peace talks. Moreover, the BDS movement that was instrumental in initiating regime change in South Africa is gaining ground against Israel and could play a role in influencing the release of Barghouti. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu recently noted his support for the BDS campaign in an op-ed to Haaretz where he wrote, “Those who continue to do business with Israel, who contribute to a sense of “normalcy” in Israeli society, are doing the people of Israel and Palestine a disservice. They are contributing to the perpetuation of a profoundly unjust status quo. He writes later on in the article that
No human-made problems are intractable when humans put their minds together with the earnest desire to overcome them. No peace is impossible when people are determined to achieve it. My plea to the people of Israel is to see beyond the moment, to see beyond the anger at feeling perpetually under siege, to see a world in which Israel and Palestine can coexist- a world in which mutual dignity and respect reign (Tutu).
In light of Tutu’s statement, it is time that Israel, Palestine and the US come together to formulate and facilitate new strategies surrounding the peace talks. Moreover, there are better strategies to reach peaceful comprises than enacting economic sanctions that hurt all segments of society. One such strategy is releasing Marwan Barghouti.
As it remains, the Palestinians do not have a leader that enjoys the full support of the majority of citizens. Releasing Marwan Barghouti would enable Palestinians to fill that void giving them what Sousan Hammad describes as the “Conscientious leader they deserve – someone who has the authority to potentially forge a true compromise” (Hammad). Often viewed as the Palestinian equivalent of Mandela and “the leader-in-waiting” Barghouti is perceived as being the person most likely to achieve a peace deal with Israel, unite Fatah and Hamas and protect and promote the rights of Palestinians (Nashashibi). With that said, Israel needs to look towards the South African experience and adopt some of the methods the country employed to overcome its deep divisions. It is argued that Palestine needs a leader like South Africa had with Mandela, one that they can unite and rally behind. Releasing a political prisoner with as much potential as Barghouti has in terms of reaching peaceful negotiations could provide Palestinians with the one thing they currently lack – hope. Ahmed Kathrada accredited with launching the Release Mandela Campaign and who spent 26 years in apartheid jails for doing so believes the same thing. Kathrada states that,
It was the struggles of our people combined with international pressure that led to the release of Mandela and the negotiated transition to a democratic South Africa. We, therefore, have a sacred duty to campaign for the unconditional release of Marwan Barghouti and all Palestinian political prisoners as an essential step towards the freedom of the Palestinian people and peace in the region. (Kathrada)
In light of such assertions, it is the responsibility of the Israeli public and the international community as a whole to push for new action plans surrounding reaching a political compromise between Israel and Palestine. To begin, public pressure by way of peaceful protests and concerted political action should press for the release of Marwan Barghouti.
The peaceful protests that this paper calls for should draw attention to the fact that Barghouti was a political not a military leader one who as Linton writes never carried arms and who always opposed actions targeting Israeli civilians (Linton). Although many dismiss the Barghouti-Mandela analogy as hyperbole, this paper contends that protests pressing for his release should continue to highlight the similarities of the two leaders. Such efforts will help to raise awareness of the Palestinian cause, highlighting how the international response to what many consider as apartheid in Palestine is nothing in comparison to what South Africa received in the 1990s. Moreover, the protests should give voice to the fact that Barghouti’s years in prison have helped to moderate his political views as demonstrated in following quote by Barghouti who states, “I have always called for a constructive mix of negotiation, resistance, political, diplomatic and popular action” (Jeffay). Those who believe in his release and its potential to positively influence Israel-Palestinian peace talks should also take advantage of this advice, as it will indefinitely take a multifaceted approach to secure the release of Marwan Barghouti. The role of Nelson Mandela and the entire South Africa experience offers important lessons to Palestinians highlighting the importance of a unifying figure, especially one who has won the respect, trust and allegiance of their people, which Marwan Barghouti most assuredly has. In this regard, as Uri Avnery so aptly states much like Nelson Mandela in apartheid South Africa, the leaders in prison are just as important, if not more so, than the leaders outside (Avnery).
The lives of Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr, and Aung San Suu Kyi all exemplify that when challenging gross injustice leaders must be fully prepared to sacrifice their lives for their beliefs. It is this willingness to make sacrifices in order to procure justice and equality that inspires, unites and mobilizes citizens to challenge unjust regimes. As the lives and legacies of these individuals confirm, moral and courageous leadership is paramount if a society is to prevail over repression. The Palestinians need a leader along these lines. A leader who enjoys the support of the majority, is perceived domestically and internationally as a source of hope and one who inspires their people to transcend violence and retribution to build a new future. Palestinians desperately need Marwan Barghouti to be released. If he is, perhaps one day he will make it on the aforementioned list of leaders, accredited with helping to steer his country down a path of peace and justice.
As was voiced in this paper current conflict resolution strategies are not working. New, bold and innovative strategies need to be pursued to breathe life into peace talks that are almost dead. Releasing Marwan Barghouti would indicate to the international community that Israel is serious about making peace with Palestine, and is willing to take great risks to make this an actuality. The status quo as it remains continues to perpetuate violence from both Israel and Palestine, and both are slowly running out of options. The BDS movement is hurting Israel economically and the IDF’s Operation Protective Edge has led to unprecedented levels of anti-Semitic violence throughout Europe. Moreover, the disproportionate number of civilian causalities in the conflict has led to international condemnation of Israel leading some to press for a public inquiry into allegation of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Current tactics being employed by both sides have only contributed to a self-perpetuating cycle of violence rather than attempting to eradicate it. It is time to trade armed resistance and military campaigns for constructive dialogue and diplomatic negotiations. Negotiating the release of Marwan Barghouti would be a fine place to start. His release would help end this zero-sum game that is currently being played with disastrous consequences. We all know that the stakes are high, but so are the payoffs. At this point, Israel has nothing to lose, and everything to gain.