Palestinians, and some Israelis, see Marwan Barghouti as key to peace. They need him out of prison first

The graffitied image of Marwan Barghouti’s face on the huge concrete slabs of Israel’s separation barrier, or wall, at the main Israeli checkpoint between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah has darkened with the smoke and tear gas of countless demonstrations against an occupation now in its 57th year.  

But his name hasn’t faded.

After more than two decades in an Israeli jail, Barghouti remains the most popular Palestinian leader there is, consistently leading opinion polls ahead of Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

For Palestinians, he is a political prisoner. For Israelis, he is a terrorist accused of leading a militant offshoot of the Fatah movement known as the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and convicted of ordering killings and suicide bombings during the second intifada, or uprising.  

With the decimation of Gaza in an Israeli bombing campaign now in its sixth month, and uncertainty over “the day after,” calls are growing for Barghouti’s release from those who believe he could have an important role to play.

WATCH | The efforts to free jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti:

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Marwan Barghouti has been in an Israeli jail for 22 years, but many Palestinians and some Israelis think the controversial leader could be key to reigniting the peace process.

“I’m very confident and very positive that my father will be released,” said Barghouti’s son Aarab in an interview with CBC News at the offices of the “Free Barghouti” campaign in Ramallah.

“And I can feel that it will happen as soon as possible.” 

Calls for another prisoner-hostage exchange

Last November, 240 Palestinians were released from Israeli jails in exchange for 105 hostages taken by Hamas militants during their attack on Israeli border towns on Oct. 7. 

Around 1,200 people were killed during the Hamas-led attack, according to Israeli tallies. More than 31,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since war broke out, according to Gaza health officials.

Israel and Hamas are trying to negotiate a second exchange. Even though Barghouti has long been a member of the rival Fatah faction that leads the Palestinian Authority, Hamas has put Barghouti’s name on its list, as it did last fall.   

Aarab says it’s a testament to his father’s unifying appeal among Palestinians, and why Israel would be wise to release him.  

A bearded man in a blue shirt stands in front of a portrait of a man in handcuffs with his arms raised.
Aarab Barghouti stands in front of a photo of his father in the Marwan Barghouti campaign office in Ramallah, occupied West Bank. (Jason Ho/CBC)

“If any Israeli leader really wants an end for this and peace for the region on the long term, they would see that my father is someone that would bring that, who still believes in the tiny chance left for the two-state solution.”   

That would be a hard ask for Israelis who see Barghouti as a terrorist with blood on his hands. He was convicted by an Israeli court for his role in the second intifada violence and sentenced to five life terms in 2004. 

Barghouti refused to present a defence to a court whose authority he doesn’t recognize but has denied the allegations.  

He’s backed popular peaceful resistance and said he doesn’t condone attacks on civilians, but has not renounced violence as a means of resisting the occupation.  

Two people in silhouette walk past a wall with graffiti and a portrait of a man.
Palestinians walk past graffiti depicting Barghouti on Israel’s controversial separation barrier in the occupied West Bank city of Abu Dis. Barghouti remains the most popular Palestinian leader there is, consistently leading opinion polls ahead of Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)

His son says Barghouti supports peace, but a “just peace,” not one where Israel’s occupation would be allowed to continue.           

“We want independence. We want freedom. We want our rights of equality on this land,” Aarab said.

Political life

Now 64, Marwan Barghouti grew up the son of a migrant labourer in a village called Kober, just north of Ramallah. As a young man, he was active in student politics at Birzeit University, arrested by Israel on more than one occasion and then exiled to Jordan.    

He returned in the 1990s as part of the Oslo peace process intended to pave the way toward Israeli and Palestinian states living side by side in peace and mutual security. 

When the Palestinian state didn’t materialize, Barghouti became disillusioned, according to Yossi Beilin, one of the Israeli architects of Oslo who worked toward it with Barghouti.  

A man in black
Yossi Beilin, one of the Israeli architects of Oslo peace process who worked toward it with Barghouti. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC)

“He changed his mind because he thought, maybe we are not going for peace and we need to do something which will be a kind of an earthquake, which was the second intifada in 2000,” said Beilin in an interview with CBC News at his home in Tel Aviv. 

“It was a huge mistake on his side.”  

Beilin says Barghouti was “involved in giving awful orders,” but says he still thinks he offers Israelis and Palestinians a chance at co-existence, something many on both sides of the conflict have given up on.  

“He is the most popular [Palestinian] leader,” Beilin said. “There is nobody who is close to him. And it would be a mistake on the side of Israel not to release him.”  

The ‘only leader’

In January, the former head of Israel’s internal Shin Bet security service, Ami Ayalon, told the Guardian newspaper that Barghouti was the “the only leader who can lead Palestinians to a state alongside Israel.” 

“First of all, because he believes in the concept of two states,” he told the newspaper. “And secondly, because he won his legitimacy by sitting in our jails.”  

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the hardline religious nationalists in his government are adamantly opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state, so Barghouti’s thoughts on a two-state solution will be of little interest to them. 

Netanyahu’s security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who many consider an extremist and was convicted in the past of supporting an anti-Arab terrorist group, ordered Barghouti moved to an isolation cell in February. 

While many of the families of Israeli hostages in Gaza want their loved ones released “at any price,” many Israelis oppose anything that might be seen to reward Hamas for its actions on Oct. 7 or encourage it to undertake more.  

NGOs supporting Palestinian prisoners say there are currently more than 9,000 from the occupied West Bank being held in Israeli jails. 

In a 2011 agreement with Hamas, Israel released more than 1,000 Palestinians in exchange for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader who would go on to plan the Oct. 7 attacks, was one of those released, while Barghouti remained in jail.    

Beilin still believes Israel’s current government could agree to Barghouti’s release “in the context of its deal with Hamas.”   

Mustafa Barghouti, a longtime Palestinian politician and a distant cousin of Marwan, says Israel should be pressured to do so. 

Smoke is shown rising in a clear sky in a distance photo showing a city skyline of low-rise buildings, several which appear to be damaged.
Smoke from Israeli bombardment of the northern Gaza Strip is seen from southern Israel on Friday. Israel’s military operation, launched in the wake of Hamas’s deadly Oct. 7 attack, has claimed the lives of more than 31,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials. (Tsafrir Abayov/Reuters)

“Not only him, but all other political leaders, like Ahmed Sa’adat and others,” he said in an interview at his Ramallah office. “They are political leaders. They’re not terrorists.  They’re freedom fighters.” 

Barghouti, a physician who leads a movement called the Palestinian National Initiative, cautions against seeking lone saviours or solutions.  

“We need unified leadership. Marwan can play a very important role in pushing in that direction. And then we need democratic elections and the public.”  

A threat to the status quo

The last time Palestinians voted was in 2006. Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and is designated a terrorist group by a number of countries, including Canada, won the election which was then followed by near civil war between the Islamist group and its secular rivals in Fatah. 

A year later, Israel imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip with Egypt’s assistance.  

Washington’s prescription for a long-term resolution to the current conflict is for a return to the two-state solution that was never realized, with a reformed Palestinian Authority (PA) eventually overseeing both the West Bank and Gaza. 

But the U.S.’s perceived bias in favour of Israel by most Palestinians leaves it with some serious credibility problems.  

WATCH | The challenges of a two-state solution:

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“Everybody is concerned: ‘Should we let the Palestinians have an election, what if the Palestinians had an election and we didn’t like the results,'” said Aarab Barghouti.  

“And no one asks the question should we trust Netanyahu or not.” 

Still, it is perhaps not insignificant that the Free Barghouti campaign offices sit opposite the PA headquarters in Ramallah, where the former Palestine Liberation Organization chairman and Fatah leader Yasser Arafat lies buried. 

Support for current PA President Mahmoud Abbas, now in his 80s, is abysmal, his governorship criticized by Palestinians for being corrupt, autocratic and enabling of the Israeli Occupation.  

Some critics suggest the PA is against Barghouti’s release from jail because of the threat he would pose to Abbas and his chosen successors in the event of presidential elections.  

A son’s wish

Aarab says his main concern — aside from the need for an immediate ceasefire to end Gazans’ suffering — is that of a son, wishing to see his father safely home with the opportunity to spend time with his wife, lawyer Fadwa Barghouti, and their children and grandchildren.  

“If it was for me, I would be selfish and would tell you that I want him all for me and for my family.”  

He says the family is extremely worried about Barghouti’s safety and health now that he’s been moved to isolation.  

But he also believes his father has an important role to play as someone who can end Palestinian divisions he says Israel has exploited over the years. 

“My father is, you know, a unifying figure for the Palestinian people. And this is his main strength.” 

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