Marwan Barghouti’s name has resurfaced frequently in recent days as observers contemplate potential post-war scenarios in Gaza. Many Palestinian nationals and humanitarian aid workers have once again called on Israel to release him. One of the possible options being discussed for the future of the besieged Palestinian enclave involves Barghouti, who has been detained by Israel since 2002. Some believe him capable of re-establishing the Palestinian Authority’s legitimacy and assuming leadership of a potential government that would manage the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
A week ago, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that any plan for future government in the Gaza Strip "must include Palestinian-led governance and Gaza unified with the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority (PA)," to ultimately achieve a "Palestinian state." Barghouti would be a popular candidate for some Palestinians but would likely be met with strong resistance from Israel and Ramallah.
In Israel’s view, Barghouti is a figure of Palestinian terrorism, even though he has been imprisoned for more than 20 years for his alleged role in organizing several deadly suicide attacks during the Second Intifada (2000-2005). Barghouti, who was secretary general of Fatah in the West Bank at the time, was sentenced in 2004 to five life sentences. Since then, he has continued to assert his innocence and considers the court that tried him illegitimate. "Marwan is accused of having founded the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades [a Fatah militia that was particularly active during the Second Intifada] and some of his supporters come from this same group," explained Tahani Moustafa, Palestine analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Thirty-four percent of the vote
Israel is also wary of Barghouti because of his ability to galvanize a divided Palestinian national movement and challenge the gains made by Israel in Ramallah. Unlike other figures in the Palestinian Authority, Barghouti has not been accused of collaborating with the Israeli authorities.
Having been a leading figure in the First and Second Intifadas, Barghouti condemns the close coordination between the authorities in the West Bank and Israel on security matters.
“Never before in history has a population under occupation been asked to provide services to the occupier,”he said in an interview with Le Monde in 2016.
“Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas, current President of the PA] has offered Israel eleven years of unprecedented security. But Israel has taken advantage of this to expand the settlements, confiscate land, Judaize Jerusalem and continue the siege of Gaza, where unemployment and poverty are at their highest," he continued.
Barghouti’s position has helped increase his popularity among the Palestinian population over the years. “His imprisonment is in fact one of the reasons why Marwan is so popular," noted Hamada Jaber, consultant at the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR). “He continues to follow what is happening in Palestine and is still present in the community,” Jaber added.
In 2006, the Fatah leader was the first candidate to stand for parliament from an Israeli prison, and he renewed his seat on the Palestinian Legislative Council. Barghouti poses a threat to the Palestinian Authority, which has been plagued by corruption, authoritarianism and inaction for years and is unlikely to push for Barghouti’s release. Last Friday, Mahmoud Abbas declared that the PA would be ready to regain control of Gaza "within the framework of a comprehensive political solution" involving the formation of an independent Palestinian state, which would include Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. While this scenario has little chance of succeeding, Jaber said one thing is certain: "The biggest losers from the possible release of Marwan Barghouti would be the current leaders of Fateh."
From his cell, Barghouti endorsed the Fateh list for the 2021 legislative elections, led by his wife and Nasser al-Qidwa, in exchange for the latter's support for his presidential candidacy. The elections, initially promised by Mahmoud Abbas, were supposed to be the first since 2005-2006. However, Abbas postponed them indefinitely, fearing that dissident lists might empower Hamas to seize control in the West Bank, as several observers noted.
Moustafa suggests, “Marwan's popularity can largely be explained by the fact that he represents a protest vote against Mahmoud Abbas… But again, that doesn't mean much, given the limited options available within Fatah." According to a poll published last September by the PCPSR and conducted among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, if new presidential elections were held today, Barghouti would be the preferred candidate. Abbas would receive 34 percent of the vote, followed by Ismail Haniyeh (head of the Hamas political bureau) with 18 percent. The events of Oct. 7 further tarnished the image of the authorities in Ramallah, as Hamas was emboldened and once again presented itself as the defender of the Palestinian cause on a national scale.
'Limiting the resistance'
Within the current landscape, Barghouti has the advantage of representing a third option between the current leadership of Fatah and Hamas. Therefore, he might attract support from the Islamist faction. Touted as a mediator, he and other prisoners signed the "Letter from the Prisoners" in 2006, calling for the Islamist movement to be integrated into the PLO.
In recent years, Hamas has also reportedly made it known on several occasions that Barghouti was a priority in any prisoner exchange agreement with Israel. On Oct. 28, Hamas’ military wing stated it was prepared to release the nearly 240 Israeli hostages captured on Oct. 7 in exchange for the release of all Palestinian prisoners incarcerated in Israel. However, the proximity between Barghouti and Hamas seems to complicate his release further. "It is difficult to see how he could help to achieve the objectives that Israel and the international community have set themselves in Gaza,” Moustafa continued. These objectives include “limiting the resistance and setting up an entity capable of maintaining peace in Gaza in the same way as they expect the PA to do in the West Bank - which it has proved it can no longer do."
Barghouti’s last resort could be to pressure Arab states like Jordan and Egypt to push for his release. They have shown support for him in the past and could be motivated by the desire to maintain their own stability. "If the international community and the Arab countries are willing to manage the conflict, Barghouti could be the only leader capable of freezing out Israel and the international community for a decade or so," said Jaber.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour.