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Palestinian Mandela

Marwan Barghouti is seen as a natural candidate for the Palestinian presidency. But right now he is busy on hunger strike in an Israeli prison.


I have a confession to make: I like Marwan Barghouti, the controversial Palestinian politician. I have visited him many times in his modest home in Ramallah, where we have discussed, among other things, the possibilities for peace between Israel and Palestine. We had the same ideas: to create the Palestinian state alongside the Israeli, and to create peace between the two states based on the internationally recognized borders of 1967 (with minor adjustments), with open borders and cooperation. Barghouti has repeated this proposal many times, both inside and outside prison. His wife Fadwa is a trained lawyer. She devotes all her time to fighting to set her husband free. In the crowd at Yasir Arafat's funeral, I happened to be standing beside her, watching her tearful face.

The born leader. This week, Barghouti, along with thousands of other Palestinian prisoners in Israel, launched an unlimited hunger strike. I just wrote during a call asking for him to be released.

Marwan Barghouti is the born leader. Despite being small in growth, he stands out in every congregation. Within the Fatah movement, he quickly and at a young age became the head of the youth department. (The word "Fatah" is the initials of the Palestinian Liberation Movement in reverse.)

The Barghouti family is a large clan with dominant positions in many villages near Ramallah. Marwan himself was born in 1959 in the village of Kobar, near Ramallah. One of his ancestors, Abd-al-Jaber al-Barghouti, led an Arab uprising as early as 1834. I have met Marwan's distant relative Mustafa Barghouti, who fights for democracy, in many demonstrations – and shared tear gas with him. A third member of the extended family, Omar Barghouti, is one of the leaders of the international anti-Israeli boycott movement and opponent of the two-state solution.

Perhaps my sympathy for Marwan is influenced by some similarities in our upbringing. He joined the Palestinian resistance movement when he was 15, as young as I was when I was involved in the Hebrew underground movement about 35 years earlier. My friends and I looked at ourselves as freedom fighters, but were labeled by the British as "terrorists". The same has now happened to Marwan – a freedom fighter in his own eyes as well as in the eyes of the vast majority of the Palestinian people; but to the Israeli authorities he is a "terrorist".

Disputed charges. When Barghouti was put on trial in Tel Aviv in 2004, I and a number of other members of the Israeli peace movement Gush Shalom (the "Peace Bloc") tried to show our solidarity with him in court. We were thrown out by armed guards. One of my friends lost a toenail in this glorious battle.

Several years ago, I called Barghouti the "Palestinian Mandela." Despite many differences between the two, there is one fundamental similarity: Both were for peace, but justified the use of force against their oppressors. While the apartheid regime was content with one life sentence against Mandela, however, Barghouti received a ridiculous five life sentences plus 40 years – for violent acts committed by his organization, Tanzim.

By the same token, the now-deceased politician and former prime minister Menachem Begin was sentenced to 91 life sentences by the British for bombing the King David Hotel, in which 91 people – many of them Jews – lost their lives.

There is another similarity between Mandela and Barghouti: When the apartheid regime was destroyed by a combination of "terrorism", violent strikes and a worldwide boycott, Mandela emerged as the natural leader of the new South Africa. Many people expect that once a Palestinian state is established, Barghouti will become president after Mahmoud Abbas.

There is something in his personality that instills confidence, and that makes him a natural judge in international conflicts. Even those involved in Hamas, who are in opposition to Fatah, tend to listen to Marwan. He is the ideal bridge builder between the two movements.

Divide and Conquer. A few years ago, a large number of prisoners from both organizations – led by Marwan – signed a joint appeal for national unity, setting out specific conditions. It led nowhere.

There may be several reasons why the Israeli government rejects any proposal to release Barghouti, as they did when a prisoner exchange between the parties appeared to be a golden opportunity. A free Barghouti could be a strong champion of Palestinian unity – which is naturally the last thing Israeli overlords want.

Divide and conquer – "split and rule" – has since the time of the Roman Empire been a guiding principle for any regime that benefits from oppressing other peoples. In this field, the Israeli authorities have had incredible success. Political geography provides truly ideal conditions: the West Bank (by the Jordan River) is separated from the Gaza Strip by about 50 kilometers of Israeli territory.

Both Mandela and Barghouti have been for peace, but justify the use of violence against their oppressors.

Hamas gained control of the Gaza Strip through the effective combination of elections and violence. They refuse to accept leadership from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a coalition of more secular organizations that govern the West Bank.

This is not an unusual situation for national liberation organizations. They are often divided into more and less extreme wings, much to the delight of the oppressor. The last thing the Israeli government wants to do is release Barghouti and allow him to re-establish Palestinian national unity. God forbid.

Hunger Strike. The hunger-striking prisoners do not demand release for themselves, but ask for better conditions of imprisonment. They demand, among other things, more frequent and longer visits by wives and families, an end to torture and better food. They also remind us that international law prohibits an "occupying power" from moving prisoners from occupied territory to the occupier's country. This is exactly what is happening to virtually all Palestinian "security prisoners."

A little over a week ago, Barghouti presented these demands in a signed article in the New York Times. The editorial staff described the author of the article as a Palestinian politician and a member of the Israeli National Assembly. It was a courageous act by the editors (who in part restored the impression of the newspaper after it condemned Bashar al-Assad for using poison gas, without a shred of evidence.)

But courage also has its limits. The next day, the newspaper published an editorial notice that Barghouti had been convicted of murder. It was a pitiful capitulation to Zionist pressure. The lousy man behind this was Michael Oren, the current Secretary of State in Israel. Oren was born in the United States and belongs to a subgroup of American Jews who are extremely Israeli patriotic. Oren gained Israeli citizenship and took an Israeli name in order to serve as the country's ambassador to the United States. As an ambassador, he attracted attention by using distinctly hateful anti-Arab rhetoric, so extreme that even Benjamin Netanyahu seems moderate by comparison.

I doubt that Oren has ever sacrificed anything for his patriotism, rather it has been a tool that has allowed him to make a career. Nevertheless, this man allows himself to speak with contempt about Barghouti, who has spent most of his life in prison and exile. He describes Barghouti's article in the New York Times as a "journalistic act of terrorism". And it says he!

It is not possible to win over a hunger strike.

A hunger strike is a very brave act. It is the last weapon of the least protected people on earth – the prisoners. The disgusting Margaret Thatcher starved the Irish hunger strikers to death.

The Israeli authorities initially agreed to force Palestinian hunger strikers. The Israeli Medical Association – and they should have all the credit for that – refused to cooperate, as such measures have previously led to the deaths of victims. It meant the end of this type of torture.

Illegal policy. Barghouti demands that Palestinian political prisoners be treated as prisoners of war. It will not happen. Nevertheless, it should be possible to demand that prisoners of all kinds be treated in a humane way. This means that deprivation of liberty is the only punishment that has been sentenced, and that within the prison walls one should offer as dignified conditions as possible.

In some Israeli prisons, it seems that a kind has been established modus vivendi between the prison authorities and the Palestinian prisoners; a form of understanding that makes the system work for the time being. But not in all. It is easy to get the impression that the prison system is the enemy of the prisoners, and that they use their power to make the lives of the prisoners as miserable as possible. This has worsened further now, in response to the strike.

This policy is cruel, illegal and counterproductive. It is not possible to win over a hunger strike. Prisoners are doomed to win, especially when decent people around the world watch. Maybe even the New York Times.

I'm waiting for the day when I can visit Marwan again as a free man in his home in Ramallah. It will be even more gratifying if Ramallah, when that time comes, is a city in the free state of Palestine.
Commentator in Ny Tid. Avnery is a former member of the Knesset in Israel. Israeli journalist and peace activist (born 1923).

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