A Palestinian Mandela?

One place to look for the “new and different Palestinian leadership” that President George Bush demanded last Monday, is Petach Tikva Prison near Tel Aviv. In the solitary confinement of his cell, Marwan Barghouthi has been charged with terrorist offences against Israel and awaits trial.

Ordinarily, Palestinians are tried in military courts, where forced confessions or the word of paid informers suffice for convictions, but Israel will try Barghouthi in a civil court so that justice will be seen to be done. The Israeli Ministry of Justice’s implication is that military courts do not serve that function. Meanwhile, while awaiting trial, Barghouthi is waiting for his leader, Yasser Arafat, to speak on his behalf. That may be a long time coming.
Arafat’s silence over the fate of a young man who heads Arafat’s Al Fateh organisation in the West Bank and is an elected member of the Palestinian Legislative Council surprises no one. In the latest opinion poll, conducted by the respected Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, Barghouti received the highest number of votes, after Arafat himself, to become the president of Palestine.

Barghouti’s percentage was rising – eleven per cent last December, nineteen now – while Arafat’s is on the decline. Two years ago, when Barghouti was at zero, Arafat had forty-six per cent. Now, it’s thirty-five. Many Palestinians said that, if George Bush had not offended them by saying Arafat had to go, Arafat’s popularity would have fallen even lower.

What Bush did for Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is doing for Barghouti. On 16 April, the day after Israeli forces arrested Barghouti at a friend’s house in Ramallah, Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued an Embassy Briefing for its missions abroad. It accused Barghouti of leading two organisations, Fateh’s Tanzim and Al Aqsa Matryrs’ Brigade, that were “responsible for over sixty per cent of the terrorist attacks carried out against Israel over the last year and a half.”

The reported treatment of Barghouti during his first forty days of detention – when his lawyers and civil rights groups said he was brutalised and deprived of sleep during twenty hours of daily interrogations – are turning someone who described himself as “a regular guy from the Palestinian street” into Palestine’s Nelson Mandela.

For Barghouti, that was not the expected outcome. Born in June 1959 in the village of Kafr Kubr near Ramallah, he was a street activist from his early teens. He took his high school diploma while in Israeli prison and founded Al Fateh’s West Bank youth branch. His many terms in detention while at Bir Zeit University made him take eleven years to earn a degree in history and political science. By then, he had been deported to Jordan.

That was 1987, the year the first uprising, or intifada, against Israeli occupation began. In 1989, Fateh appointed him as the youngest-ever member of its Revolutionary Council. He was meant to become another Arafat loyalist. In 1994, when he and other deportees came home under the Oslo accords, Barghouti became an enthusiastic advocate of that peace process. Appearing on public platforms with Israeli doves, including then Labour Justice Minister Yossi Beilan, he urged Israelis and Palestinians to embrace a new era of cooperation.

The fluent Hebrew he learned in prison served him in reaching an Israeli audience.

Barthouti began to speak against the Israelis for grabbing more Palestinian land to build settlements and to criticise Arafat’s government for corruption and autocracy. When he stood for the Legislative Assembly in 1996, Arafat – with the petulance that Tony Blair showed Ken Livingstone running for mayor of London – would not allow him to run as part of Al Fateh. Barghouti won anyway as an independent.

Barghouti’s demands for accountability met with rebukes from Arafat. In May 1997, a scandal over missing funds prompted Barghouti to propose a no confidence motion in Arafat.

When I met him six weeks into the second intifada that began in September 2000, Barghouti told me the uprising was as much against the PA as the Israelis:
“Of course, the Palestinian people are also frustrated from the policy of the PLO and the policy of the Palestinian Authority. And because of this way of negotiating, we don’t believe it will lead to independence to put an end to occupation. And we gave the leadership time and the chance and the opportunity.”
The leadership, from which he had distanced himself, had blown it. For seven years, Palestinian ministers became rich, Palestinian security forces abused Palestinian rights and Israel went on building settlements.

A tough and wiry little guy, Barghouti wore jeans, an open neck T-shirt and, when it was cold, a leather jacket. He was emerging as the Gerry Adams of the Palestinians: he went to every demonstration where kids threw stones at tanks and attended every funeral. As Adams’ people had used the “Armalite and the ballot,” Barghouti said, “We tried seven years of intifada without negotiations, and then seven years of negotiations without intifada. Perhaps it is time to try both simultaneously.”

When the Israelis assassinated his driver on 4 August last year, many assumed they were attempting to kill Barghouti. Sharon demanded that Arafat extradite him to Israel, something Arafat could not do and retain credibility. Then, on 15 April, Israeli forces surrounded the Ramallah house of a friend, Ziad Abu Ain, where Barghouti had arrived only forty minutes before. Barghouti’s lawyer, Jawad Bulos, said the Israelis may have come to assassinate him, but that his quick and public surrender may have saved his life and those of the Ain family.

Israeli and Palestinian rights organisations have protested the treatment Barghouti received during his first forty days of detention in Jerusalem. LAW, one of the groups, said, “He suffers from pain in his back and hands, cause by position abuse. Barhgouti’s hands and legs are shackled to a small chair, angled to slant forward to that he cannot sit in a stable position. Due to nails sticking out of the chair on which he is forced to sit for prolonged hours his back is bleeding… [he] is deprived of sleep for twenty hours a day.”

Bulos says conditions improved after the transfer to Petach Tikva, but the authorities do not permit him visits from his wife, Rawda, who is a lawyer, or their four children.

Marwan Barghouti may be the kind of leader the Palestinians would elect in a post-Arafat world, but it is doubtful he is the man Bush and Sharon would choose for them. Anyone selected by the US and Israel will have Barghouti, even in prison, to contend with.