Marwan Barghouti is the man who could unite the Palestinians and farsighted Israelis. He could play the same role as Nelson Mandela did in South Africa. Like Mandela, who served 27 years of a life sentence, this popular Palestinian leader has been imprisoned by an apartheid government.
During the first intifada, which lasted from 1987 until 1993, Barghouti was an optimist. The second intifada, which erupted in September 2000, however, made him realize that blind hope was not enough and that naivete was in fact the enemy of realism. Now Barghouti is in prison, and Palestinians and Israelis are teetering on the edge of another bloodbath.
There is little evidence of how ordinary Israelis feel about Barghouti-or, for that matter, about any other Palestinian who could stop the bloodshed. But an Israeli court-after what prominent Israeli writer and activst Uri Avnery described as a "show trial" in every sense of the word-sentenced Barghouti, a self-proclaimed freedom fighter, to five life sentences. The evidence against him was largely manufactured and Barghouti wisely refrained from offering any defense at all, saying the trial was illegal from start to finish. In his critical commentary on Barghouti's trial, Avnery observed sarcastically "This is how the Only democracy in the Middle East' looks now."
Marwan Barghouti was born on June 6, 1959 in the village of Kobar, near Ramallah, where orchards of olive trees date back hundreds of years. On his eighth birthday Israel conquered the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and began its illegal military occupation.
When Barghouti was 15 he joined Fatah, the secular Palestinian liberation movement. In 1978 he spent four years in an Israeli prison because Fatah was then a "banned" organization. While incarcerated he successfully completed his studies for a high school diploma, and also learned both Hebrew and English. Six months before his discharge he became engaged to his fiancée, Fadwa, and upon his release they were married. They subsequently had four children: al-Qassam (16), Ruba (15), Shaaraf (13) and Arab (11).
In 1983 Barghouti entered Birzeit University. Due to Israel's military closures and random arrests, however, it took him 11 years to earn his B.A. in history and political science. During his university years he led the Fatah students' faction and organized numerous political activities on campus. His studies were disrupted when, in 1985, he was arrested and placed in administrative detention (without charges or due process) for six months. A year before his graduation Barghouti was banished by the Israeli authorities to Jordan for "inciting the struggle against the Israeli occupation."
From Jordan he played an important role in organizing various political aspects of the first Palestinian uprising, which erupted in 1987, soon after his expulsion. He acted as a central liaison between the exiled Palestine Organization (PLO) and Fatah inside the occupied territories. In 1989 Barghouti became a member of Fatah's Revolutionary Council.
In 1994, at the height of the enthusiasm that reigned after the signing of the Oslo accords between the PLO and Israel, Barghouti was allowed to return to Ramallah. Named Fatah's secretary-general in the occupied West Bank, Barghouti at that time was a staunch proponent of the peace process, which he believed would eventually lead to a complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital. Barghouti fostered strong relations with Israeli members of the peace camp, and even with right-wing Israelis, who were ready to accept an historic compromise with the Palestinians: the just and peaceful coexistence of two separate, sovereign states, without Israeli settlements.
Domestically Barghouti, elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 1996, gained pre-eminence as a determined fighter against corruption, and for the sanctity of human rights and social and economic justice. …