Who is Marwan Barghouti, the most senior Palestinian prisoner?

Fatah official is seen as a potential future leader of the Palestinian Authority but has been in Israeli prison since 2004 after being convicted of five murders

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Marwan Barghouti is the most senior Palestinian leader in jail – and the most popular. He is often described as the Palestinian Nelson Mandela in local press.

He was born into the extended family of the Barghouti clan in the village of Kobar, Ramallah, on June 6, 1959. That year was also the birth of Fatah, the Palestinian national liberation organisation, which Barghouti joined in 1974.

He was sentenced to jail for the first time in 1978, spending four years in prison for membership of an armed group. In prison, he learnt English and Hebrew, finished his schooling and, upon his release in 1983, enrolled in Birzeit University to study history and political science. At Birzeit, he met his future wife, lawyer Fadwa Ibrahim, whom he married in 1984.

The foundations of Barghouti’s political credibility within Fatah and the wider Palestinian community were laid three years later, when he rose to prominence as a leader during the 1987 uprising that became known as the First Intifada.

Though the Palestinian revolt against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza would drag on for five more bloody years, Barghouti’s role was terminated in 1987, when he was exiled to Jordan.

It was seven long years before he was able to return in 1994, under the terms of the Oslo Accords signed the previous year between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel. Two years later, he was elected to the new Palestinian Legislative Council.

As leader of the Tanzim, Fatah’s armed wing, Barghouti played a prominent role during the Second Intifada, which exploded in September 2000 in the wake of the collapse of the Middle East Peace Summit at Camp David.

Barghouti became a wanted man.

In January 2002, he staked his claim as a force to be reckoned with in Palestinian politics with an opinion piece written for The Washington Post. Only three months later, Barghouti was tracked down and arrested.

In May 2004, he was convicted of five murders and received five life sentences. He denies the allegations.

Palestine's 'Nelson Mandela'?

Barghouti is said to be an avid reader, consuming histories and biographies, including that of Nelson Mandela by the British author Anthony Sampson. In 2013, the campaign for Barghouti’s release, backed by eight Nobel Peace laureates, would be launched from Mandela’s old cell on Robben Island in South Africa.

In 2009, Foreign Policy magazine took up the theme, highlighting "a growing acknowledgement among Israelis and Palestinians that Barghouti's broad appeal and reformist streak offer the best prospects for peace".

This, some observers have suggested, is the subtext behind the hunger strike in 2017 by more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, ordered by Barghouti.

While in prison, Barghouti released a 255-page book, written secretly behind bars and smuggled out via lawyers and family members, detailing his experience in jail.

Barghouti was seen as influential enough to be considered a viable successor to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President.

Mr Abbas is now 88 years old, and is widely seen as an unpopular leader who is unlikely to still be leading the Palestinian Authority in any future political settlement.

A poll this month by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research of more than 1,200 people in the occupied West Bank and Gaza found Barghouti would surpass Mr Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in a presidential race.

Barghouti received nearly half of the total vote followed by Mr Haniyeh.

Asked who they would prefer as a successor to Mr Abbas, the largest proportion of participants in the poll, 36 per cent, opted for Barghouti.

Updated: December 22, 2023, 6:13 AM