Ramallah, occupied West Bank – When Fadwa Barghouti travelled to Israel’s Hadarim prison last month, her heart was pounding with excitement. She had not seen her husband, imprisoned Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti, for six months.
But after some 10 hours of waiting, Israeli soldiers approached Fadwa and told her she was forbidden from visiting her husband until 2019, owing to her activism during a more than 40-day mass hunger strike among Palestinians held in Israeli prisons earlier this year. The strike was led by Marwan.
“These visits were so important to me,” Fadwa told Al Jazeera from her office in Ramallah, where posters and portraits of Marwan adorned the plain white walls. “They were my breath. It was how I was able to regenerate and gain strength.”
Fadwa called Israel’s decision “blackmail” meant to pressure her to cease her political activities.
“But I have dedicated the past 16 years of my life to advocating for Palestinian political prisoners. I would never give this up just for a visitation.”
Together in struggle
Fadwa and Marwan grew up together in the village of Kobar, outside of Ramallah city. Fadwa’s family was one of few in the village where their daughter continued her education in the city past the sixth grade, and she was the first woman in her village to obtain a driver’s license.
At the age of 18, she became the youngest founding member of the Women’s Union for Social Work, which she now heads. The group works to increase the participation of women in the Palestinian resistance movement.
Marwan, meanwhile, began a five-year sentence in Israeli prison when he was 18. Fadwa was just 14 at the time. A few years into his jail term, he sent a message to Fadwa through a recently released prisoner: “He told me that Marwan loves me and that he wants me to wait for him.”
When Marwan was finally released, his marriage proposal was anything but typical. “He said he was not interested in money or building a home, and that his heart would be dedicated to the Palestinian resistance,” Fadwa recalled.
“When the occupation ends, I can promise you that we will live a nice and normal life together, but only when Palestine is free,” Marwan said, according to Fadwa’s recollection.
Marwan told Fadwa that she should take a week to think over the proposal and decide whether she was willing to dedicate herself to someone whose life would be fully committed to the Palestinian resistance.
Fadwa’s response was sharp and confident: “I said that I do not need this week. Palestine is not only yours; it is for all of us. And I will stand with you in the struggle for our people’s freedom.”
Seven years of exile
Fadwa was 20 when she accepted Marwan’s proposal, and her life quickly became intertwined with the Palestinian resistance movement. In 1987, Marwan was exiled to Jordan during the first Intifada, after he became a major leader in the uprising. Fadwa and her two children followed him, and the family resided in exile for seven years.
She returned to Palestine with Marwan after the signing of the 1994 Oslo Accords. Two years later, Marwan was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council.
“After we returned to Palestine, my vision was very clear. I continued my studies and concentrated on raising our four children,” Fadwa said.
I am still waiting, 33 years later, for Marwan to provide me a normal life like he had promised. But Palestine has not yet tasted freedom.
Fadwa, who studied law and opened up her own law office in Ramallah, said that her main focus was agitating for legal reforms in Palestine and within Palestinian political parties to ensure the participation of women in Palestine’s political spaces.
However, when the second Intifada broke out in 2000, “everything changed for me”, she said.
During the uprising, which resulted in the deaths of nearly 5,000 Palestinians, Marwan’s popularity surged as he led Tanzim, an armed wing of the Fatah movement.
Fadwa, meanwhile, dedicated her time to participating in protests and supporting the families of Palestinians killed or jailed by Israeli forces.
Marwan’s leadership role in the Palestinian uprising caught the attention of Israeli authorities, who attempted to assassinate him on several occasions. He became one of the most wanted Palestinian resistance fighters.
A secret meeting
Eighteen days before Marwan’s most recent imprisonment, Fadwa met her husband secretly in a garden near Ramallah city.
Marwan had brought her there to warn her of his inevitable imprisonment or possible death. “He told me that he would go into hiding and that he would be unable to contact me,” Fadwa said. Marwan then began to tell Fadwa his will.
On April 15, 2002, Marwan was detained by Israeli authorities, charged with alleged involvement in several deadly attacks against Israel. He received five life sentences. Marwan was the first Palestinian to refuse to recognise the legitimacy of Israeli courts during his legal proceedings, and the first Palestinian parliamentarian to be imprisoned by Israel.
Marwan was held in solitary confinement for almost three years, making it impossible for Fadwa to visit him. The night before her first visit, she could not sleep. “I had so many butterflies in my stomach,” she said with a wide smile.
Her life from that point on became consumed with pushing for her husband’s freedom. She contacted all of Marwan’s international supporters and spearheaded a worldwide media campaign for his release, and for that of thousands of other Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.
“My entire life became dedicated to the struggle of political prisoners,” Fadwa said, noting that she made contacts with leaders in Europe, South Africa, Latin America, the United States and all over the Arab world.
“My work focuses on raising awareness of the realities of occupation and the situation of political prisoners,” she said. “Israel tries to portray Marwan and the other prisoners as terrorists … I want to show the world that these prisoners have the right to resist the Israeli occupation.”
In 2013, Fadwa travelled to South Africa to formally launch the Free Marwan Barghouti and All Palestinian Prisoners campaign with the late South African anti-apartheid icon and former political prisoner Ahmed Kathrada. Since then, eight Nobel Peace Prize laureates, 115 governments, 15 former heads of state and hundreds of other public figures have lent their support to the campaign. Last year, Marwan was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Fadwa herself has simultaneously risen as a dynamic leader on the Palestinian political stage, and she currently sits on Fatah’s revolutionary council; during the last elections, she received more votes than any other candidate.
‘Scariest time of my life’
Earlier this year, Marwan led a mass hunger strike among Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, which at its peak included upwards of 1,600 prisoners from various political parties. The strike lasted for more than 40 days, the longest in Palestine’s history, and demanded humanitarian reforms in Israel’s prison system.
Fadwa’s last visit with Marwan was in March, a few weeks before the start of the strike, after which he was moved into solitary confinement until the strike ended.
“Despite everything Marwan and I have been through, the hunger strike was the scariest time of my life,” Fadwa said. “When Marwan is in prison, at least we know he’s safe. But during the hunger strike, at any moment Marwan or one of the other prisoners could die.”
Fadwa spent every waking moment advocating on behalf of the hunger-striking prisoners. She led marches and sit-ins, campaigned on the international stage, and routinely met prisoners’ families.
“When I was sitting with the women – the sisters, mothers, or wives of the prisoners – I could see it in their eyes how scared they were for their loved ones,” Fadwa said. “I had all of the same worries, but I made sure not to show it. I had to keep myself strong for the other women.”
In the end, Palestinian leaders declared the hunger strike a success, saying that 80 percent of their demands were met, although Israel denies this.
Today, Fadwa says that what keeps her and Marwan together and persevering – despite being separated by prison walls for 16 years – is their unending love.
“I am still waiting, 33 years later, for Marwan to provide me a normal life like he had promised. But Palestine has not yet tasted freedom. So we must continue our struggle until that day comes.”