Fatah's Napoleon, Arafat's nemesis?
Marwan Barghouti is dangerous company. As the leader of the Palestinian uprising, he is a top target of the Israelis.
A nervous Palestinian, watching him go down a flight of steps on the way out of a block of flats in Ramallah, said: “Give him a few minutes in case the Israelis are waiting.” Those around him have been especially nervous in past weeks as the rate of killings has increased. Among the casualties was one of Barghouti’s colleagues in Fatah, the dominant faction in the Palestine Liberation Organisation, shot dead by Israeli security forces on December 31.
Barghouti is leader of Fatah on the West Bank and its army of stone-throwers, the Fatah youth wing that Israelis refer to as the Tanzim. He has been dubbed by the Arab press “Fatah’s Napoleon”, partly because of his diminutive stature and partly because of his energy and charisma. He is a general on the ground who can be found at street corners during stone-throwing, cellphone in hand.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has personally blamed him for the intifada. But the uprising has left Barghouti both popular and powerful, and a candidate for succession after the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, leaves the stage. Barghouti is part of Arafat’s dilemma. The Palestinian leader is caught between United States President Bill Clinton, who wants him to accept his peace proposals, and Barghouti, who wants them rejected.
Barghouti, one of the younger generation of Palestinian leaders, is a problem for Arafat because he has come to represent the mood among Palestinians on the ground. In an exclusive interview with the Mail & Guardian‘s sister newspaper, The Guardian, Barghouti was unequivocal: “The US plans are very bad. They have to be rejected. They go against all the United Nations resolutions [that call for a return to the border that existed before the Arab-Israeli war in 1967 and a return of the refugees].”
Any journalist wanting to meet Barghouti will be directed to Ramallah, but no address will be provided in case the Israelis are listening or following. He does everything possible to minimise the chance of assassination. Once in the town, after a series of phone calls, directions will be given to wherever he has set up his office on that particular day, usually in a dingy block of residential flats.
The interview was conducted in an office with dirty white walls, sparsely furnished, with men in jeans and T-shirts armed with AK-47s lounging around. Above his head was a huge portrait of Jerusalem’s disputed holy site, called Haram al-Sharif by Muslims and Temple Mount by Jews. Both sides claim it. January 1 was an important day for Barghouti, the 36th anniversary of the founding of Fatah (Victory). Soon after it was established, Palestinian commandos began raids into Israel. Rallies were held throughout the West Bank last week to mark the occasion, adding to the volatility.
Crucially, Barghouti has emerged as the most important Palestinian sceptic about Arafat’s conduct of the peace negotiations over the past seven years, especially as during that time the number of Jewish settlements on the West Bank has expanded. He said publicly that Fatah would refuse to obey an order to stop the intifada on the basis of the US plan. This proposes sharing control over Haram al-Sharif and a territorial division more favourable to the Palestinians than before.
But Palestinians have difficulty, in particular, with a US proposal that they renounce the right of return of the 3,5-million refugees to Israel. What if Arafat were to do a deal on the basis of the plan? Would Barghouti oppose his own leader? “He [Arafat] will not. I am confident he will not accept this suggestion because it is an offer to reorganise the Israeli occupation rather than an Israeli withdrawal.”
Barghouti has built up Fatah on the West Bank as a separate power base, separate from the Palestinian Authority, the embryonic government. “We are a party which is the party of the leadership, but we are not the Palestinian Authority,” he said. Barghouti provoked controversy when he criticised the Palestinian Authority police for failing to join in the intifada. “Fatah has seven years’ experience of an intifada without a Palestinian Authority, and seven years’ experience of an Authority without an intifada.”
In a direct challenge to Arafat, Barghouti wants the delegation negotiating with the Israelis to be widened beyond Arafat and his inner circle to include voices such as Hamas, the Palestinian group committed to violence. The reason for Barghouti’s popularity with Palestinians, especially the young, is his high-profile involvement in the intifada. In contrast with Arafat and his inner circle, who have seldom been seen on the streets during the uprising, Barghouti is visible at each stage of the violent cycle: rallies, riots and funerals.
Barghouti (41) belongs to the coming generation of Palestinian leaders. He was brought up on the West Bank, unlike Arafat’s closest colleagues, almost all of whom were with him in exile in Tunis. Arafat (71) is showing signs of ill-health. Palestinians generally are reluctant to speculate on who might replace him, though the assumption is that his successor will be one of the Tunis crowd.
The names usually mentioned are Abu Mazin, Abu Ala and Faruq Qaddumi. Even if one of those takes over, Barghouti’s generation, with their different views, know their time will not be long in coming. When Arafat goes, the Palestinians might even go directly for Barghouti or one of his contemporaries. It would not be the first time that a society living with conflict has opted to follow the man with the gun.
Barghouti is a farmer’s son, raised in the West Bank village of Kafr Kuber. He was head of Fatah’s student movement while at university and was in and out of prison over a six-year period before being deported by Israel to Jordan. While in exile, he was elected to the Fatah Revolutionary Council, becoming its youngest member. He returned to the West Bank in 1994, among the first group of deportees to go home under the Oslo agreement signed by the Israelis and Palestinians, ending the first intifada.
In a society where few Palestinians will publicly criticise Arafat, Barghouti has been outspoken, especially about the widespread corruption involving those round the Palestinian leader. The extravagant lifestyle of some of them has led to a lot of disillusionment with the Tunis crowd among young Palestinians. Barghouti has said repeatedly that the only language Israel understands is force. He has consistently advocated a more aggressive approach towards Israel.
When Israeli forces pulled out of Lebanon in the summer after sustained attacks from the guerrillas of the Islamic group, Hizbullah, the lesson Barghouti drew was that Israel responds to force. Against that background, it is no surprise that the Israelis have already made one strike against one of his offices since the uprising began: Barghouti was absent when the helicopter fired its missile.
He said at the time: “The Israelis say they bombed the headquarters of the Tanzim and the offices of Marwan Barghouti, but as you can see, that is not true. Marwan Barghouti is right here. They say they wanted to send me a personal message. But you can tell them I did not receive the message.” They missed that time. They may not miss next time. He and those surrounding him have good cause to be nervous.