Marwan Barghouti has already spent 27 years in an Israeli prison and in exile, the exact number of years that Nelson Mandela spent in a South African prison. In my view, these 10,000 days in prison and in exile have transformed Barghouti into the ultimate leader of the Palestinian people. At this point, he is the only one who can extricate us from the quagmire we are in.

If Helen Zussman, the South African politician, were with us today, she would be 105 years old. Zussman was the one who, in her time, saved the lost honor of South Africa, being the first political figure who understood and believed that the day would come when the citizens of South Africa would be ashamed that Nelson Mandela had been given a life sentence and served 27 years in prison. In the 1980s, Zussman began a public campaign to ease Mandela’s prison conditions, and later she fought to free him. As a result, she was hated by most of the white community in her country, but her contribution to Mandela’s release, and subsequently to the fall of apartheid, was enormous.

Helen Zussman made history and in time earned the world’s admiration. The “terrorist” Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa, won the Nobel Peace Prize, and has gone down in history as one of the 20th century’s most important and admired leaders. The army and police officers who put Mandela in prison apologized for their acts long ago. F.W. de Klerk, the white South African president, did so only near the time of his death.

As one who personally experienced the South African reversal and who knew both Nelson Mandela and Marwan Barghouti well, I am convinced that in another 10 or 20 years, when Barghouti is perhaps president of Palestine, children growing up today in Israel will find it hard to understand why Israel prevented him from leading his people to peace for such a long time.

Marwan Barghouti was born in 1959, became active in Fateh at the age of 15, and later served as president of the students’ association at Bir Zeit University, where he received a B.A. in history and political science and an M.A. in international relations. With the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987, Barghouti was exiled by the Israeli authorities to Jordan and was permitted to return only in 1994 following the signing of the Declaration of Principles between Israel and the PLO. During the second half of the 1990s, Barghouti served as the secretary general of Fateh in the West Bank.

“Leave the Occupied Territories and There Will Be Peace!”

Twenty-three years ago, a short while after Ehud Barak became prime minister and declared that his “people would not sit with PLO representatives in palaces in Sweden,” we sat with Marwan Barghouti and his friends in a nice resort in Sweden. We were not alone. The Israeli side also included Meir Sheetrit and Michael Eitan, both Likud MKs at the time, as well as former National Security Adviser Dr. Uzi Arad and former General Security Services head Carmi Gillon. The Palestinian side included the late Palestinian West Bank leader Faisal Husseini and former Minister Ghassan Khatib. We spent two full days there, hosted by the University of Gothenburg, and did not stop talking. Barghouti wanted peace. The essence of his words was: “You are an occupying power. It is our right to fight for our independence. Leave the occupied territories and there will be peace between our peoples.” Coming from an authentic and charismatic leader, his words sounded sharp and credible.

Graffiti for Marwan Barghouthi near Qalandya Checkpoint

After our return from Stockholm, I continued to maintain contact with Barghouti as much as possible. In the summer of 1999, I was instructed to check whether the Palestinians had any special requests from the newly installed Israeli Government. I met Barghouti for breakfast at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem to discuss the issue. I lowered expectations as Ehud Barak was a new prime minister and the possibility of his making gestures was limited indeed. Barghouti understood this and expressed one wish above all: “Please, release those prisoners who have been sitting in prison for decades and are now in their seventies or more.” He didn’t give me a list, but it was clear that we were talking about no more than a few dozen prisoners and that this would be a humanitarian gesture intended to move things forward again. I passed the message on to the Prime Minister’s Office, but the answer was slow in coming. When I pressed, I received a resounding refusal, which surprised me a lot. In that American Colony breakfast we also discussed all the outstanding issues, and Barghouti again 
repeated the sentence I had heard from him in Sweden: “Leave the occupied territories and there will be peace, I promise.”

With the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, the contact between us was broken off.

On a Saturday at the beginning of 2002, I traveled with journalist Roni Shaked to speak at a cultural event in Beer Sheba. These were the most difficult days of the second intifada. A terrible wave of terrorist attacks was sweeping the country. In a taxi on the way back, Roni said to me: “Listen, it’s going to be really devastating in the coming days. I’m hearing that there are a lot of attack warnings. Can you speak with your friend?”

I didn’t hesitate for more than a moment or two and telephoned Barghouti from the taxi: “Marwan, what are you guys doing? Have you gone crazy?” I screamed into the phone. “Alon, leave the territories and everything will stop. Leave the occupied territories and there will be peace,” Barghouti answered calmly, in total contrast to my own emotional outburst.

It all sounds so trivial. There is nothing new here. The arguments are well known, yet still I am haunted by my conversations with Barghouti and by the fact from our first to our last conversation, he never changed one jot in his position. On the other hand, we Israelis are the ones who have changed our position over the years. For years we said that the territories were important to us only for security reasons; then we said that the outposts and settlements were temporary and were negotiating chips. Later we said “territories for peace,” and then, 10 years ago, we even erased the word “peace” from our political lexicon. Meanwhile, Barghouti has never changed his basic position.

On the way back from Beer Sheba to Jerusalem, following the conversation with Barghouti, it was hard for me to calm down. When you hear the words “leave the occupied territories and there will be peace,” from a leader of Barghouti’s caliber at a charming resort in Sweden, at breakfast at the American Colony, and even from his bunker as commander of the armed forces in the heat of battle, they become laden with meaning.

Mandela and Barghouti

It’s true that Palestinian terrorism over the years has been cruel and heinous. Barghouti and his friends made a huge mistake in this regard, and they are paying for it. Some are paying with their freedom, and many have paid with their lives. Even in a violent struggle it’s possible to retain a modicum of humanity. In directing their terrorism against Israeli civilians, the Palestinians lost this modicum of humanity, and herein lies the big difference between them and Mandela’s African National Congress. Mandela tried to stay “humane” even when he directed his liberation movement toward violent struggle.

Even so, there is a commonality between Mandela and Barghouti: the consistency of their positions. Mandela made two famous speeches which are enthusiastically taught in universities all over the world and are considered cornerstones for national liberation struggles and for the advancement of democracy and human rights: the defense speech he made at his treason trial in Pretoria in 1956, when the apartheid regime first requested a life sentence, and the speech he gave in Cape Town in early 1992, when he was released after 27 years in prison. The amazing thing about these two speeches is that large parts of them are identical word for word. Mandela never changed his positions and opinions, or even his words, during 40 years of struggle against apartheid.

Only a few kilometers away from the Hadarim prison where Barghouti is incarcerated, members of Israeli high society live in peace and prosperity. Many of the heads of the Palestinian fighting forces today, more than 20 years after Barghouti’s arrest, especially members of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, have never uttered the words that Barghouti repeated in his meetings with me. Most of them don’t even recognize our right to exist and are unwilling to talk to us. Barghouti indeed led a violent struggle against the occupation, but his aim was peace. He was and remains a leader admired by his people, and this admiration increases with each passing day he is incarcerated. More than a decade ago, Barghouti organized the joint signing of a document by political prisoners from all the Palestinian militias, which in its time became a beacon for the hope of peace.

The veteran Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is gradually losing the support of his people. He has served as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) since the last presidential elections held in 2005, although Hamas won the parliamentary elections in 2006. Some point to the fact that he is 86 years old, some say he is sick and tired, and some argue that he is corrupt. All agree on the need for elections and leadership renewal. Yahya Sinwar, leader of Hamas in Gaza, is considered by most Israelis to be violent and ruthless. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) has never even considered dialogue with Israel and has never indicated that it differentiates between civilian and military targets on its violent path. Both Hamas and PIJ leaders have no majority support, while Barghouti is supported across all factions, including Hamas and the PIJ. Nine years have passed since the last talks between Israelis and Palestinians took place, and there are no signs of any return to the negotiating table.

In December 2016, Marwan Barghouti won first place in the elections for the Fateh Central Committee, after running for the position from his prison cell. On March 16, 2021, he announced (via his supporters) that he planned to run for the presidency of the PA. Unfortunately, those elections were postponed, and no new date has been set for them, but that need not affect Israel’s assessment of the advantages to be gained from freeing Barghouti.

Enough is enough. We must release Marwan Barghouti from prison, conditional on his unequivocal promise to seek peace, and we must begin to believe him. The Palestinians do not have a more important or braver leader. In the end, he might well be the leader of our neighboring people, and the sooner he is freed, the better Israeli-Palestinian neighborly relations will be in the future.