Barghouti's release would ease the Palestine stalemate

Marwan Barghouti's wife, Fadwa. (AFP)

Marwan Barghouti's wife, Fadwa. (AFP)

In her suite of offices in a modern block in the West Bank city of Ramallah, the wife of Marwan Barghouti, the most prominent of the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, considers the significance of the latest efforts to seek his release.

Fadwa Barghouti has been here before. In the negotiations to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas in Gaza, her husband's name came up for a possible exchange. Again, as last year, when the peace process was revived with a succession of prisoner releases, Barghouti's name was in the mix.

His case was raised again last week in the White House by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who asked President Barack Obama to put some pressure on the Israelis.

Arrested in 2002, Barghouti is serving five life sentences after being convicted by an Israeli court in 2004 for his involvement in five murders.
But, although others convicted of violence by Israeli courts have been released, Barghouti remains in jail.

He denies the allegations that he directly ordered killings but he is viewed by many Israelis as a convicted terrorist. The case of the 54-year-old prisoner has reopened the debate between those who say he should stay in prison and those, including some Israelis, who argue that he offers the best hope of delivering a two-state solution.

"The most important thing is that the leadership is pushing his case," said Fadwa, surrounded by photographs of her husband.

Barghouti, an MP and prominent leader of Fatah during the second intifada, has said he will stand for president in the future. There are many who believe he would win easily, even if still jailed.

"I saw him last week," said Fadwa, who is permitted two 45-minute visits a month to see her husband in Hadarim prison in central Israel, where he shares a cell with two others.

She brings him news of his four adult children and of the progress of the peace negotiations from the Palestinian leadership. She also sends him the books he reads voraciously, in English, Hebrew and Arabic, which have included the political memoirs of figures such as former United States president Bill Clinton and former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright.

'Long and horrible journey'
"He has spent 18 years of his life in an Israeli prison. He was deported for seven years. It has been a long and horrible journey," Fadwa said. "Despite all this, he believes the conflict should be resolved by a two-state solution. He does not believe there is an alternative in a one-state solution except more bloodshed and more agony."

She said he is concerned about the lack of unity among the Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas.

"His message is clear," said Ziad Abu Ein, deputy minister for detainees and a long-time friend and political colleague of Barghouti, who was arrested in his home in Ramallah in April 2002. "Yes to peace with the state of Israel. No to peace with the occupation."

But by that, he said, Barghouti means civil disobedience and not violence, and does not see an armed struggle as being "beneficial" to the Palestinian people.

Last year, in a 17-point letter he released from prison, Barghouti called for an end to security co-operation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, support for the sanctions and boycott movement and an end to negotiations while Israel is still building settlements.

Political benefits
Abu Ein, like other Palestinian political figures and analysts, sees the championing of Barghouti's case by Abbas with Obama last week both in terms of a negotiating strategy and as politically beneficial to Abbas.

Other analysts have remarked that his release would assist Abbas in the internal conflicts in Fatah and as an interlocutor with Hamas.

The renewed calls for Barghouti's release have emerged as part of tit-for-tat reciprocal demands from the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships – for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, Barghouti's release, and now reportedly Netanyahu's demand for the release by the US of the spy Jonathan Pollard.

If the prisoner release issue is a critically important condition in this round of negotiations, it is because of the tangible impact it has on Palestinian support for them – from two-thirds opposition to talks to more than 50% support.

The championing of Barghouti's release by some prominent Israelis who dealt with him in negotiations in the 1990s is perhaps unsurprising for a man who, it was said at one time, had the phone numbers of half the Knesset.

Barghouti for president
Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli politician who played a key role in the Oslo Accords, has long been opposed to Barghouti's imprisonment and in a recent article called again for his release, although he rejected his depiction by some supporters.

"The fact that he has been behind bars for a long time doesn't make him Nelson Mandela either," wrote Beilin. "He made a grievous error of judgment in the fall of 2000 when he tried to face off with Hamas in an arena where Hamas has a significant advantage – terrorism and violence.

"He is, however, one of the most important Palestinian leaders, and whether free or behind bars, he is a candidate to replace Mahmoud Abbas." – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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