Interview with Marwan Barghouti: Life and Politics in Prison, National Unity, and the Resistance
Marwan Barghouti is the former West Bank general secretary of Fatah and also a former Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) member. He is currently serving five life sentences in Israeli prison on charges of murder. Barghouti, like most Palestinian detainees, knew that the fate of his trial was predetermined (given the 99.7% conviction rate of Palestinian offenders by military courts). Therefore, instead of engaging with the military court, Barghouti and his lawyers chose to “boycott” the trial by refusing to mount a defense.
If Saadat’s arrest and imprisonment are indicative of the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) security coordination with Israel during a critical moment of the second intifada, then Barghouti’s arrest and very public trial are indicative of Israel’s goal to make an example of popular public personalities.
Barghouti joined Fatah at fifteen and, by the time he was nineteen, had been arrested and convicted for membership in an illegal organization. While in prison, he completed his secondary schooling and learned Hebrew. Upon release and entry to Birzeit University, Barghouti became a prominent student leader, and by 1987, before the outbreak of the first intifada, he was arrested for “incitement” and exiled to Jordan.
Although he stayed active in party politics during his exile, his grassroots work with the West Bank was severely restricted. It was not until the 1993 signing of the Oslo accords that Barghouti was allowed to return to Palestine, becoming the leader of Fatah for the West Bank in 1994.
In 1996, he was elected to the PLC, and in those early Oslo years, he became known as someone who believed the accords could lead to a lasting peace with Israel and an independent Palestinian state. However, in the face of Israeli actions and facts on the ground such as the expansion of existing settlements and the construction of new ones all over the West Bank, Barghouti reversed his position and began to lead growing calls for collective Palestinian resistance against the ongoing occupation.
Like many local leaders, Barghouti was vocal about the Palestinian right to resist the Israeli occupation using all available means. But because of his earlier advocacy for Oslo, when he set up al-tanzim, a group of Fatah-led militias, he became the object of increased Israeli attention. It was widely expected that Israel would target Barghouti for assassination, something he himself mentioned in a Washington Post op-ed that appeared on 16 January 2002.
By the time Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield was launched in March 2002, Barghouti—like Saadat before him—had gone into hiding, after having survived an August 2001 assassination attempt by the Israelis. When the IDF invaded Ramallah and besieged the Muqata’a, they also found and surrounded the house in which Barghouti was staying. In order to avoid the potential death or injury of people in close proximity, Barghouti chose to avoid a lengthy standoff and surrendered to Israeli authorities on 15 April 2002.
While in prison, he formed a new political party, al-Mustaqbal, and although he considered running in the 2006 Palestinian presidential elections, he eventually bowed out. Instead, Barghouti, along with leaders from Hamas, the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Islamic Jihad, and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), wrote the National Reconciliation Document, also known as the “Prisoners’ Document.” Calling for the reform and expansion of the Palestine Liberation Organizaion (PLO), the reorganization of other political and security apparatuses, and for a joint military front to fight Israeli occupation, as well as the formation of a Palestinian coalition government (see document B8 in JPS 140), the document has been at the basis of every subsequent Palestinian reconciliation attempt.
As is often the case with prisoners, families take over the helm; the wives of both Saadat and Barghouti have played a major role in advocating for their release and relaying their public statements. Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, a lawyer, has been very active in his public defense. She has blamed the PA for hindering his release, accusing President Abbas of not doing enough to bring attention to his case.
Although Barghouti has been in Israeli custody for the past twelve years, he has remained active as a leader of the prisoners’ movement, as well as an inspiration for many Palestinians frustrated with the compromising character of the current PA leadership. He is frequently cited as one of the most popular contemporary Palestinian leaders across party lines, and polls often show him winning a national election for president if one were to be held. Even from prison, his statements are heralded as calls of national political revival for Fatah and non-Fatah members alike.
This interview was originally published in JPS’s Arabic-language sister publication Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filistiniyya. It was conducted via an intermediary who delivered the questions to Barghouti in prison in January 2014. The original Arabic text was translated into English by Anny Gaul.