Will Israel release Marwan Barghouti, the ‘Palestinian Mandela’?

Amid growing calls for Barghouti to be released after 22 years in jail, Israel has placed him in solitary confinement.

marwan barghouti
Marwan Barghouti as he appears in handcuffs in an Israeli court in Tel Aviv during his trial for consecutive murder charges on May 20, 2004 [David Silverman/EPA]

Marwan Barghouti’s supporters call him the Palestinian Mandela. Like the South African leader who was imprisoned by the apartheid regime for 28 years, the Fatah politician has been in jail for more than two decades.

Now, despite growing calls for his release — including from Hamas, a longtime rival of Fatah — his incarceration appears poised to continue. On Wednesday, Israel’s extreme right security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, announced that Barghouti had been placed in solitary confinement. Al Jazeera has independently confirmed this.

Barghouti was a prominent leader in the first and second Intifadas and was convicted by an Israeli court on five counts of murder in 2004, two years after he was jailed. His imprisonment by Israel has been among the most high profile and his release has long been a key aim of several of the groups opposing Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

Protesters wave banners with a picture of jailed Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti under a statue of Nelson Mandela, during a rally supporting hunger striking Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, who have been on an open-ended hunger strike for the past 17 days, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Wednesday, May 3, 2017. The prisoners launched the protest to press for better conditions, including family visits. Arabic reads "the uprising engineer and the symbol of national unity."
Protesters wave banners of Marwan Barghouti under a statue of Nelson Mandela, at a rally supporting hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, in Ramallah, May 3, 2017 [Nasser Nasser/AP Photo]

Israel accused Barghouti of having founded the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades in the early 2000s and indicted him on 26 charges of murder and attempted murder attributed to the Brigades. He was sentenced by an Israeli court to five cumulative life sentences, plus 40 years for attempted murder and membership in a terrorist organisation.

Barghouti offered no defence, refusing to recognise the authority of the Israeli court and saying only that he supported the armed resistance but opposed the targeting of civilians.

Israeli reluctance

Barghouti’s absence from Palestinian politics has done little to dampen his popularity. According to a wartime poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Barghouti is the most popular Palestinian leader, with support for him outstripping Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and the Western-backed Mahmoud Abbas, whose resignation 90 percent of those polled called for.

His son, Arab Barghouti, and those around him have heard nothing to suggest the elder Barghouti’s release might be imminent, but he remains optimistic, especially with Hamas demanding his release early in February.

“Hamas wants to show to the Palestinian people that they are not a closed movement. They represent part of the Palestinian social community,” Qadoura Fares, who heads the Commission of Detainees and Ex-Detainees Affairs in the occupied West Bank told The Associated Press.

“From a Palestinian perspective, the timing for his return is especially auspicious,” Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow with the Middle East Institute said. “Barghouti is a highly respected figure by all sides. Moreover, he’s a unifying figure and that’s what the Palestinians need. That, or even the promise of that,” he added.

Hamas understands that, in the wake of October 7, it cannot be the public face of the Palestinian national movement, Elgindy added.

But, analysts have said, Israel will be very reluctant to release a man who can mobilise so many people.

Barghouti, his son Arab tells Al Jazeera, “knows he can be the guarantee for unifying the Palestinian people and political partnerships, and that’s what Israel is scared of.”

Ironically, it may well be Barghouti’s commitment to a two-state solution that presents the most significant threat to an Israeli government seemingly determined to backtrack upon the agreements it undertook in Oslo in the 1990s, analysts have suggested.

Barghouti was one of the authors of the 2006 Palestinian Prisoners’ Document, an extraordinary achievement that not only recognised Israel but had a broad range of signatories whose factions lent their names to the document.

In it, members of Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine called for the establishment of two states, with resistance to Israeli occupation limited to military targets within the territory seized by Israel in the 1967 war.

“Israel has every reason to keep him in prison,” Elgindy said, “It’s the old colonial strategy of divide and rule … Netanyahu is going to be very keen on keeping the West Bank separate from Gaza and Abbas, with all his shortcomings, in place,” he added.


Allied to the potential difficulties of having to deal with a unified Palestinian front is Barghouti’s reputation as a noted resistance fighter and someone Israel convicted for his past actions.

“Releasing Barghouti is going to take a degree of pragmatism that appears beyond Netanyahu’s right-wing cabinet, or Netanyahu himself for that matter,” Elgindy said. “From what we’ve seen, they have no interest beyond playing to their base, and their base’s basest instincts.”

International support for Barghouti’s release may also be uncertain.

“For the Biden administration, it’s an option,” Elgindy cautioned, “but I don’t know if there’s enough pragmatism in that government to deal with Barghouti,” a man routinely lambasted in the Israeli media and convicted on five counts of murder.

Retaining his seat on Fatah’s Central Committee, Barghouti is understood to retain his belief in drawing the various Palestinian factions together and ending much of the factionalism that has held since Hamas’s 2006 election victory and fighting between the group and Bargouthi’s own Fatah party.

That Barghouti has retained his influence on the Palestinian population was apparent in December when Quds Press published a statement it said it received from him, calling on all the Palestinian factions in the occupied West Bank to rise up and fight the Israeli occupation.

The purported call spread like wildfire and the prisoner was thrown into solitary confinement where, lawyers say, prison authorities removed his mattress and bedding, blocked his access to basic hygiene facilities and subjected Barghouti to speakers blasting out the Israeli anthem for 12 hours a day.

“No one’s been able to visit him since October,” Arab said, “How anyone could claim to have got a statement out of him I don’t know. It’s been a full-time job to get him a new lawyer.”

Since October 7, there have been numerous reports and testimonies by prisoners about the mistreatment and abuse they faced from Israeli prison authorities.

Questioned by British newspaper The Times, Israeli prison authorities would not comment on Barghouti’s specific allegations of mistreatment, saying only that they “operate strictly according to rules and procedures”. A spokesperson added, “The prisoner has filed an official complaint, which will be examined via standard procedure.”

Like many Palestinians, Arab describes the fate of the country’s political prisoners – estimated by the Israeli human rights group HaMoked to be some 9,000 – to be dire.

“Getting all the prisoners released would likely be a major priority,” he said of his father’s plans after release.

Many of Barghouti’s supporters have mentioned the irony that nearly all the factors that would typically work towards his release – his commitment to a two-state solution and his ability to unite a profoundly fractured Palestinian politics – may now be used in Tel Aviv as arguments against it.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies