Israel might hate the comparison, but the truth is that prisoner Marwan Barghouthi is beginning to look very like Palestine’s own version of the late, great Nelson Mandela, and possibly the only hope for a peace deal that the Zionist state claims to want so much. No one doubts his courage as the hunger-striking icon has shown he is willing to sacrifice his life for his beliefs and his nation, in the prison cell which has been his home since his arrest 15 years ago.
With each day that passes, much to Israel’s frustration, Barghouthi’s status as a dove is growing as he challenges a brutal apartheid system which has tried and failed to crush him. His voice is becoming louder, and even the New York Times gave him a platform earlier this month to break the news that he would lead hundreds of fellow prisoners in their protest against prison conditions within Israel.
Like Mandela before him, Barghouthi realises the power of peaceful resistance and he is one figure within the complex, often corrupt, Palestinian political landscape who has the trust of all of the usually divided factions. If Israel is really serious about wanting peace, then it should release him today and let him lead his people through the minefield of Middle East peace negotiations to reach a fruitful outcome.
I am not alone in being convinced that he is the only man who can do this, and with each day that passes with him still locked up by the Israelis, his reputation and stature at home and abroad continues to grow. As is often the case with such monumental figures, of course, whether you see him as an honest broker capable of delivering peace or the most dangerous enemy of a hawkish Zionist state depends on which side of the apartheid fence you sit.
Despite Israel’s allegation that Barghouthi has the blood of its citizens on his hands, his reputation as a Fatah political leader is one of a man opposed to violence against civilians. Nevertheless, he is serving five life sentences for his alleged involvement in five murders; although he did not pull the trigger, he was adjudged guilty of helping to organise the killings.
If there was a free and fair election in Palestine tomorrow, though, Marwan Barghouthi would probably win the presidential vote by a mile, such is his popularity among the Palestinians. They regard him as a giant among men compared to current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has achieved so little for his people during his 12 impotent years at the helm.
Like many octogenarian rulers in the Arab world, Abbas refuses to resign or seek re-election. Not surprisingly, Israel seems content for Abbas to remain in power as it is clear that nothing will change under the 82-year-old’s rule. This begs two questions: whose interests does Abbas really represent, Israel’s or Palestine’s, and does Tel Aviv really want change that will bring about peace?
Israel appears to fear seeing a seemingly incorruptible, energised force like Barghouthi in charge in Ramallah. It prefers instead to deal with the shambolic, corrupt ruling Fatah officials running the PA who are comfortable with the status quo which, naturally, favours the occupying power.
Now Barghouthi has decided to rock the boat and remind both sides that complacency is the enemy of peace. The prison hunger strike involving around 1,200 political prisoners was embarked upon ostensibly to improve visitation rights, medical treatment and educational access, but there are bigger issues at stake and the global spotlight is now shining on Marwan Barghouthi.
The world is becoming increasingly fatigued by the inactivity of the Israel-Palestinian road map to nowhere; indeed, the doves within the Zionist state are equally frustrated. Nelson Mandela and his anti-apartheid stalwarts taught the world that even prison bars and the darkest dungeons cannot silence great men and women. Their voices will be heard and now, it seems, many of those who could possibly bring pressure to bear on Israel to seek a genuine peace deal are listening to Barghouthi.
Pressure from the international community on Tel Aviv could force the Israelis’ hands; if they are serious about peace, they must prove it and release the one man capable of delivering both a deal and political unity in Palestine. Without a united front, the Palestinians have been weak negotiators but, given the chance, Barghouthi could prove to be the strong, inspirational leader that they need.
Even as a prisoner, Barghouthi has achieved something that Abbas — as a free man, as president — has never done; he has become the symbol for peaceful Palestinian resistance to achieve freedom, justice and peace. It is no use Israel dismissing Barghouthi by calling him a terrorist; that was also said of Nelson Mandela by South Africa’s apartheid regime and its apologists in Washington and London — the same governments which back Israel, right or wrong, by the way — to little or no effect.
As Israel contemplates its next move to try and silence the most powerful and popular leader in Palestine today, perhaps it should embrace the idea of releasing Marwan Barghouthi on the grounds that peace always follows freedom. Let him go to Washington next month to meet US President Donald Trump instead of Mahmoud Abbas and change a useless photo opportunity into something far more tangible. Nelson Mandela was right when he said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Don’t make it impossible, Israel; just do it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.