The Palestinian Mandela

The division of the Palestinian territories into a "Hamastan" in the Gaza Strip and a "Fatahland" in the West Bank is a disaster.

A disaster for the Palestinians, a disaster for peace, and therefore also a disaster for Israelis.

The Israeli political and military leadership is happy about the split, according to the doctrine "What’s bad for Palestine is good for Israel". This doctrine has guided Zionist policy right from the beginning. Haim Arlosoroff, the Zionist leader who was murdered by hands unknown on the seashore of Tel-Aviv in 1933, already condemned this doctrine in his last speech: "Not everything that is bad for the Arabs is good for the Jews, and not everything that is good for the Arabs is bad for the Jews."

Will the Palestinians overcome this split?

It seems that the chances for that are getting smaller by the day. The gulf between the two parties is getting wider and wider.

The Fatah people in the West Bank, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, condemn Hamas as a gang of fanatics, who are imitating Iran and are guided by it, and who, like the Ayatollahs, are leading their people towards catastrophe.

The Hamas people accuse Abbas of being a Palestinian Marshal Petain, who has made a deal with the occupier and is sliding down the slippery slope of collaboration.

The propaganda of both sides is full of venom, and the mutual violence is reaching new heights.

It looks like a cul-de-sac. Many Palestinians have despaired of finding a way out. Others are searching for creative solutions. Afif Safieh, the chief of the PLO mission in Washington, for example, proposes setting up a Palestinian government composed entirely of neutral experts, who are neither members of Fatah nor of Hamas. The chances for that are very slim indeed.

But in private conversations in Ramallah, one name pops up more and more often: Marwan Barghouti.

"He holds the key in his hand," they say there, "both for the Fatah-Hamas and for the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts."

Some see Marwan as the Palestinian Nelson Mandela.

In appearances, the two are very different, both physically and in temperament. But they have much in common.

Both became national heroes behind prison bars. Both were convicted of terrorism. Both supported violent struggle. Mandela supported the 1961 decision of the National African Congress to start an armed struggle against the racist government (but not against the white civilians). He remained in prison for 28 years and refused to buy his freedom by signing a statement denouncing "terrorism". Marwan supported the armed struggle of Fatah’s Tanzim organization and has been sentenced to several life terms.

But both were in favor of peace and reconciliation, even before going to prison. I saw Barghouti for the first time in 1997, when he joined a Gush Shalom demonstration in Harbata, the village neighboring Bil’in, against the building of the Modiin-Illit settlement that was just starting. Five years later, during his trial, we demonstrated in the courthouse under the slogan "Barghouti to the negotiating table, not to prison!"

Last week we visited Marwan’s family in Ramallah.

I had met Fadwa Barghouti for the first time at Yasser Arafat’s funeral. Her face was wet with tears. We were crowded among the multitude of mourners, the din was ear-splitting and we could not exchange more than a few words.

This time she was calm and composed. She laughed only when she heard that Teddy Katz, a Gush activist who took part in the meeting, had sacrificed a toenail for Marwan: during our protest in court we were violently attacked by the guards and one of them stamped his heavy boot on Teddy’s sandaled foot.

Fadwa Barghouti is a lawyer by profession, a mother of four (three sons, one daughter). The oldest, Kassem, has already been in prison for half a year without trial. She is a dark-blond woman ("All the family members, except Marwan, are blond," she explained, adding with a rare smile: "Perhaps because of the Crusaders.")

The Barghoutis are a large Hamula (extended family), inhabiting six villages near Bir Zeit. Dr. Mustapha Barghouti, the physician who is well-known for his human rights activities, is a distant relative. Marwan and Fadwa – also a Barghouti by birth – were born in Kobar village.

Marwan Barghouti’s family lives in a nice apartment in a co-dominion building. On my way there, I noticed the widespread building activity in Ramallah – it looks as if new buildings are going on every corner, including commercial high-rises.

Near the door of the apartment, an embroidered sign says in English: "Welcome to my home". The apartment itself is decorated with many images of Marwan Barghouti, including a large drawing inspired by the famous photo that shows him in court, raising his handcuffed arms above his head like a victorious boxer. When the security forces were searching for him, they took possession of the apartment for three days and raised a large Israeli flag on the balcony.

Fadwa Barghouti is one of the few persons allowed to visit him. Not as a lawyer, but only as "close family" – a definition that includes parents, spouses, siblings and children under 16.

At present, there are about 11 thousand Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Assuming an average of five "close family" members, that makes 55 thousand potential visitors. Those, too, need a permit for each visit, and many are rejected for "security reasons". Fadwa also needs a permit every time, which allows her only to go directly to the prison and back, without stopping anywhere in Israel. The three sons are not allowed to meet their father anymore, since all three have passed the age of 16. Only the young daughter can visit him.

There is hardly anyone who is more popular with the Palestinian public than Marwan Barghouti. In this, too, he resembles Mandela while in prison.

It is difficult to explain the source of this authority. It does not emanate from his high position in Fatah, since the movement is disorganized and there is hardly any clear hierarchy. From the time when he was a simple activist in his village, he rose in the organization by sheer force of personality. It is that mysterious thing called charisma. He radiates a quiet authority that does not depend on outward signs.

The war of vilification between Fatah and Hamas does not touch him. Hamas takes care not to attack him. On the contrary, when they submitted a list of prisoners in exchange for the captured soldier Gilad Shalit, Marwan Barghouti, in spite of his being a Fatah leader, headed the list.

It was he who, together with the imprisoned leaders of the other organizations, composed the famous "prisoners’ document", which called for national unity. All Palestinian factions accepted the document. Thus the "Mecca agreement", which created the (short-lived) Government of National Unity, was born. Before it was signed by the parties, urgent messengers were sent to Marwan, in order to obtain his agreement. Only when this was given, did the signing take place.

I took advantage of my visit in Ramallah to order to get an impression of the opinions of Barghouti’s adherents. They try not to be swept away by the climate of mutual hate that now governs the leaderships of the two sides.

Some of them strenuously oppose the Hamas actions in Gaza, but try to understand the causes. According to them, the Hamas people, unlike many of the Fatah leaders, have never been in the West and have not attended foreign universities. Their mental world was formed by the religious education system. Their horizon is narrow. The complex international situation, in which the Palestinian national movement is compelled to operate, is quite foreign to them.

In the last elections, my interlocutors explained, Hamas hoped to gain 35-40% of the votes and thus gain legitimacy for their movement. They were totally surprised when they got the majority. They did not know what to do with it. They had no ready plans. It was a mistake on their part to set up a government composed entirely of Hamas members, instead of insisting on a unity government. They misjudged the international and Israeli reaction.

Marwan’s adherents do not shrink back from self-criticism. In their opinion, Fatah is not without blame for what happened in Gaza. The movement did not act wisely when they arrested and humiliated the Hamas leaders. For example, they arrested Mahmoud al-Zahar, the foreign minister in the Hamas government, humiliated him, cut off his beard and called him by the name of a famous Egyptian female dancer. This is one of the reasons for the burning hatred al-Zahar and his colleagues hold for Fatah.

I did not hear denials of the Hamas contention, that Muhammad Dahlan, the former confidant and security advisor of Mahmoud Abbas, conspired with the Americans to carry out a military coup in the Gaza Strip. Dahlan, the darling of the Americans (and the Israelis) believed, according to them, that, if provided with arms and money, he could take over Gaza. That pushed Hamas to the decision to act first and carry out an armed takeover themselves. Since the majority of the public supported Hamas and detested Dahlan, who was accused of collaborating with the occupation, Hamas easily won. Dahlan has now been sent into exile by Abbas.

Hamas’ center of gravity is in the Gaza Strip. That is the problem of Khaled Mashal, the Hamas leader who resides in Damascus. Unlike his two deputies, he has no roots in Gaza. That’s why he needs money to reinforce his standing there. He gets it from Iran.

(I would have liked to give some impressions here of the Hamas point of view, but it is quite impossible to enter the Gaza Strip, while our Hamas interlocutors in East Jerusalem have all been sent to prison.)

How will the Palestinians get out of this bind? How can they reestablish a national leadership that will be accepted by all parts of the people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, able to lead the national struggle and make peace with Israel, when peace becomes possible??

Bargouti’s followers believe that at the right time, when Israel comes to the conclusion that it needs peace, he will be released from prison and play a central role in the reconciliation – much as Mandela was released from prison in South Africa when the white government came to the conclusion that the Apartheid regime could not be sustained anymore. I have no doubt that In order to bring such a situation about, the Israeli peace forces must start a big public campaign for Barghouti’s release.

What will happen in the meantime?

There is hardly anyone on the Palestinian side who believes that Ehud Olmert will conclude a peace agreement and implement it. Hardly anyone believes that anything will come out of the "international meeting" that is supposed to take place in November. The Palestinians believe that it is a bone thrown by President Bush to Condoleezza Rice, whose standing has been dropping dramatically.

And if that has no results?

"There is no vacuum," one of the Fatah leaders told me, "If the efforts of President Abbas do not bear fruit, there will be another explosion, like the intifada after the failure of Camp David."

How is that possible, after the Fatah activists have turned over their arms and foresworn violence? "A new generation will arise," my interlocutor said, "As has happened before – one age-group gets tired and its place is taken by the next one. If the occupation does not come to an end and there is no peace, a peace that will enable the members of this generation to turn to the universities, to family, work and business, a new intifada will surely break out."

To achieve peace, the Palestinians need national unity, much as the Israelis need a consensus for withdrawal. The man who symbolizes the hope for unity among the Palestinians is sitting now in Hasharon jail.