Son of Marwan Barghouti says father would want Palestinian unity

Ex-Fatah leader's son fears Netanyahu will walk away from peace deal

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Marwan Barghouti, regarded as one of the few people capable of bringing about a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, would probably tell fellow Palestinians that “if there is a time we need to be united, this is the time”, his son Arab said in an exclusive interview with The National.

After two decades of incarceration in Israeli prison, the man referred to as the “Palestinian Mandela” by his followers could be freed “within months if not weeks” under an Israel-Hamas deal to halt the war in Gaza, Arab said.

However, his father's ability to resolve decades of conflict could be severely impacted by his current “brutal treatment” in jail, including alleged beatings and malnourishment.

In his most recent message to his family, Barghouti urged them to “stay strong in these very tough and difficult times” but also said that “I’m getting treated really, really badly inside prison”, Arab explained.

Not if, but when

Hopes for Barghouti’s imminent release have arisen because, despite being a member of its rival Fatah, Hamas has insisted on his inclusion among Palestinian prisoners to be freed by Israel in exchange for hostages the group seized from southern Israel during the deadly raids on October 7 that started the current cycle of war.

Arab believes Hamas’s motivation was in part because “one of my father’s biggest strengths is that he’s a unifying figure” who has strong relations with all Palestinian factions.

“We are very confident and very positive that he will be released. It’s a matter of when, not if he will be released, and we're very positive that it will happen in the next few months, if not weeks,” he said, speaking in Ramallah.

We feel guilty for feeling any pain about what's happening to my father while a genocide is taking place in Gaza
Arab Barghouti, son of 'Palestinian Mandela' Marwan Barghouti

But he admits that the exchange, part of a truce deal still under negotiation, could “fall apart” if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu feels it “doesn’t fit his personal agenda”.

Barghouti’s popularity in the occupied West Bank is clear from people’s positive reaction to his name and the supportive graffiti and flags seen from Ramallah to his nearby birthplace in Kobar.

There is also speculation that he could be the unifying candidate to succeed Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian Authority president, although some in Fatah would oppose this.

Barghouti, who has proved a unifying, influential and educational figure inside Israel’s jails, was moved to solitary confinement in the high-security Megiddo prison, outside Haifa, in the weeks after the October 7 attacks that claimed about 1,200 lives in Israel.

His family allege that on March 6, the 64-year-old was severely beaten by prison authorities, suffering a dislocated shoulder, an eye injury and severe bruising.

Israelis denied any attack had occurred after international friends of the family raised complaints about his mistreatment, including that he was malnourished and had lost 10kg.

Arab said his father’s suffering was difficult to process on top of the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza, where more than 35,500 have been killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

“We feel guilty for feeling any pain about what's happening to my father while a genocide is taking place in Gaza,” he said. “We don't know how to express our rage but I still feel so worried about my father’s life.”

Missed years

Arab said the family's only communication with Barghouti since the war began has been through his lawyer, who has been able to visit him on four occasions. He has no access to radio, television or newspapers.

“The lawyer said he saw the pain in my father’s eyes, when he heard about the children and targeting of civilians in Gaza, he was so sad.”

Arab, now 33, has been able to see his father on just four occasions in the 22 years since he was imprisoned, the last time in 2022.

His father has missed Arab's teenage years, graduation from school and university as well as the birth of six grandchildren from his daughter and two other sons.

Arab has received occasional letters, mostly dictated by his father and written down and delivered by his lawyer.

Barghouti’s dream was to have his children “living in a free Palestine, with independence and full rights” and that failure was the “biggest pain my father has now”, he said.

Book devourer

Barghouti is a voracious learner, with university degrees, a master's and a doctorate. During his incarceration, he helped 400 prisoners obtain bachelor's degrees and 100 master's degrees, mostly in Israeli studies and the history of the Arab world.

His eagerness to learn has not slowed as he reads 10 books a month, Arab said.

That includes reading in Hebrew – he also speaks fluent English – with a focus on Israeli studies that includes the biographies of “every single prime minister of Israel”.

Arab said his father also focuses on Arab history, “how we got here, what's wrong with the Arab world and how can we make it better”.

His most recent “obsession” is with China – “everything, the economy, the politics, the history”.

Unity candidate

Much of Barghouti’s credibility has been built on his ability to unite the Palestinians, convincing Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to join the PLO in signing the historic 2006 Prisoners’ Document, regarded as a cornerstone for future government.

This is what possibly makes him the only person who can unify the major factions, given the rift between Fatah and Hamas, the latter also aware that it will gain popularity and political credibility by securing his release.

Arab said his father has worked since the 1994 Oslo Accords towards securing a Palestinian state, despite realising in the late 1990s that the Israelis were “not really serious about a two-state solution”.

He does not regard Mr Netanyahu as a “partner for peace” as the Israeli leader has demonstrated that he “takes pride in the fact that he ruined the idea of a Palestinian state”.

But Barghouti’s past interaction with many Israeli figures means that politicians “think of him as someone who could be a partner and these voices are rising more and more,” said Arab, who has a career in IT, with a long stint in San Francisco.

Palestine’s Mandela

The similarities between Barghouti and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela are notable. Both were jailed on terrorist offences, much of it spent in solitary confinement, but while behind bars, they became the only viable unity candidates.

While Mr Mandela used his incarceration as leverage to gain concessions from the apartheid government, Barghouti remains isolated from the outside world.

“Of course I feel proud that my father is nicknamed the Palestinian Mandela but also because both their vision and goal was to bring freedom to their people and they don't want to harm anyone else,” said Arab, who had just returned from a trip to South Africa to film an update to a documentary on his father called Tomorrow’s Freedom.

Both men were convicted terrorists, Mr Mandela for his role in the fight against apartheid and Barghouti on five counts of terrorism for directing suicide attacks against both civilian and military targets.

Barghouti refused to recognise the Israeli court or present a defence and did not confess to any crimes. He was acquitted of 21 counts of murder and convicted on five, leading hardline Israeli politicians to label him a terrorist.

One man’s freedom fighter

“If you look at any leader – black, brown or Muslim – that rebels against colonial projects they have always been called terrorists, even Irish freedom fighters,” said Arab.

His father did “not shy away from” the fact he participated in the first and second intifada and encouraged uprising on the streets, but as a political leader was not involved in “any violence directly”.

Arab also pointed to the “hypocrisy”, after tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in Gaza, “where Israel’s leader is never called a terrorist”.

Once it became clear the Israeli government was ignoring the Oslo Accords, Barghouti was “begging them that we're going into darkness, we're going into violence”, he said.

Arab said that his “superpower is his presence” and being a great listener who is “always with you in the moment”.

“He's so humble and always interested in the details and all that you do,” he said.

For the son, the most important thing is to get his father back after the lost decades and he openly admits his absence was something “I've struggled with my whole life”.

He also concedes that he felt resentment in his youth because “my father chose the Palestinian people over me” but understood “the noble cause and the great sacrifices he has made” when he grew up.

However, this does not stop him from stating, lightheartedly, that when his father is released “I want to put him in a room and lock the door so that he doesn’t go out”.

Updated: May 24, 2024, 5:29 AM