Marwan Barghouti is a mixture of almost everything required to give him the charisma and support of many Palestinians. He is a natural born leader who is very intelligent. He has mastered English and Hebrew with a fluency gained while serving in an Israeli prison during the first intifada. This leader, prior to his arrest, was considered a possible successor to Yasser Arafat.
On April 15, 2002 Israeli security forces arrested Barghouti in Ramallah, part of Israel's Operation Defensive Shield. Israeli courts tried him for a series of murders and there was evidence linking him to other crimes. In May 2004, the Israeli court convicted him of the murder of five civilians and involvement in four terror attacks. On 6th June 2004, he was given five consecutive life sentences plus an additional 40 years in prison (20 years for attempted murder and another 20 for membership in a terror organization).
As time moves on and with election fever heating up in Israel, the future of peace negotiations with the Palestinians is bound to be part of the Israeli election campaign. Parallel to the Israeli elections is the Palestinian election campaign as well. Marwan Barghouti has shown increased support amongst the Palestinians even though he is imprisoned. Perhaps this could be due to the “martyr effect” of imprisonment. His people view him as a freedom fighter that has paid a high price for his activities in the name of achieving freedom for his people.
Political prisoners are freed when negotiations for a peace agreement get under way, even prisoners who have been involved in terrorist activity and murder in many instances. This is a very problematic issue for those who had suffered at the hands of terrorism. It is understandable that families who have lost family and friends in terrorist attacks would oppose the release of Marwan Barghouti. We cannot judge their reactions to a possible release. Even if one were to view Marwan Barghouti’s release from a legal point of view, it is no less problematic.
However, if an agreement is reached with the Palestinians and Palestinian terror is curtailed successfully, Barghouti’s release must be brought up for debate. He is a potential negotiating partner and he is no less guilty of murder than many leaders who were involved in the struggle for freedom of their people. The Irish para-military leader, Gerry Adams, was responsible for many murders as well before he laid down his arms and adopted a peaceful approach resulting in the disarming of the Irish Republican Army. Arafat is another example who was granted legitimacy when the Oslo Accords was signed. What about Israel’s leaders, who were involved in the struggle for the establishment of Israel? Lehi, the Sterne Gang, and the Irgun who were fighting for the freedom of the Jewish people, had also killed many on the opposing side whether Arabs or British. Yitzchak Shamir, who was PM of Israel in the late 1980s until the election of Yizchak Rabin in 1992, is a case in point.
Perhaps one should view the release of Barghouti within the context of the history of Israel’s struggle for independence. Barghouti was involved in the struggle of his people against the Israeli occupation no less than Israel’s past struggles for independence. All struggles for independence results in tragic bloodshed on both sides.
If one were to examine the various interviews that Barghouti had given, he had never denied Israel’s right to exist. He also spoke out against terror. However, he does view those who live in occupied areas as occupiers against whom terror activity is justified as part of the Palestinian struggle for independence. There are certain parallels in his struggle for his people’s statehood and Israel’s past struggle for independence. This is where the tragic problem lies. However, as difficult and problematic as it is, Barghouti must be seen as a leader with whom Israel can negotiate in the future. The fact that he has massive support would mean that his release would be a counterbalance to Hamas and would also improve Israel’s stature in the world and her Arab neighbours.