While violence in the occupied Palestinian territories continues to spiral in an unclear direction without an end in sight, a familiar name has returned to the political agenda. Marwan Barghouti, an elected member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a senior Fatah leader, is being discussed in political and diplomatic circles. Talk of him intensified when Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, in a highly publicized video conference on Nov. 4, told Gaza supporters that Hamas will call for the release of Barghouti and Ahmad Saadat, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, in a prisoner exchange deal with Israel.
Barghouti — a former student leader at Birzeit University who was deported by Israel during the first intifada in 1987 and helped launch the Fatah youth movement — is a hero to many Palestinians. Public opinion polls by Arab World for Research and Development show Barghouti gaining in popularity over the years as President Mahmoud Abbas' elected successor.
Israelis have mixed feelings about Barghouti, who speaks fluent Hebrew and understands the Israeli political map. Some consider him an “arch-terrorist” and point to his multiple imprisonments and convictions related to killing of Israelis during the second intifada in 2002, while others see him as a pragmatic leader with whom they could one day possibly make peace.
Moqbel Barghouti, Marwan’s young brother, told Al-Monitor that his brother is in extremely good spirits. “I met Marwan last Monday; he was very optimistic and feels good about what is going on in the occupied territories,” said Moqbel. He also related that his brother was nonetheless concerned that the Palestinian leadership’s political efforts are a weak match for the struggle taking place on the ground. “He wants to be sure that efforts on the political front will be equal to the sacrifice on the ground,” which, based on what Marwan told Moqbel, appears to be a veiled reference to portrayals of Abbas' current position.
In an Oct. 11 article in the Guardian, Barghouti expressed a mix of support for the Palestinian struggle and extending a hand for peace. He wrote, “I joined the struggle for Palestinian independence 40 years ago, and was first imprisoned at the age of 15. This did not prevent me from pleading for peace in accordance with international law and UN resolutions. I have spent 20 years of my life in Israeli jails, including the past 13 years, and these years have made me even more certain of this unalterable truth: The last day of occupation will be the first day of peace.”
Discussion of Barghouti's release has accelerated talk about the leadership succession within Fatah. Talal Abu Afifeh, head of the Jerusalem Intellectual Forum, told Al-Monitor that if released, Barghouti could create a strong force within the Fatah Central Committee. “Marwan is very popular among young cadres, and he would certainly be Fatah’s candidate for president.”
Fatah activists are divided on whether Barghouti should be nominated to head the movement if he is not released. Ahmad Barghouti, a journalist in Ramallah and relative of Marwan, told Al-Monitor that there is a strong trend that supports nominating his cousin to the top Palestinian position even if he is incarcerated. “Despite Hamas' offer, it is highly unlikely that Israel will release Marwan, and therefore many within Fatah want to raise his profile even while in jail.”
A senior Fatah official requesting anonymity told Al-Monitor that it would be a mistake to elect Barghouti to a senior position as long as he is imprisoned. “I am a big supporter of Marwan, whom I am sure will have a major role in the movement once he is released, but as long as he is in jail, I believe it is a mistake to give Israel the power of having a leader with a position in its hands.”
The official added that any prisoner “should have his position suspended” until he is released, to deny Israel the opportunity to use him as a political bargaining chip. Elias Sabbagh, who saw Barghouti in jail Nov. 4, told Al-Monitor that Barghouti is on board with being nominated at Fatah's upcoming seventh congress to lead the Palestinian movement. “The Palestinian public has supported Marwan for years by consistently placing him at the top of all published polls,” said Sabbagh.
Yoav Stern, an Israeli journalist turned peace activist, told Al-Monitor that at present it is unlikely that Israel will release Barghouti. “I don't see this happening whatsoever, even if he promises to quiet things down.”
Whether Barghouti will be released remains unclear, but with the effectiveness of the 81-year-old Abbas in decline, the spotlight will increasingly focus on a new and younger Palestinian leadership.
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