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Moving Forward In Palestine: Free Marwan Barghouti

"Moving Forward In Palestine: Free Marwan Barghouti"

Zeev bin Natan

Palestinian freedom fighter Marwan Barghouti is Arafat's likely popular successor. He has been Fatah Secretary-General since 1994 and played a key role on the street in both the first Intifada and the present Intifada al-Aqsa. Marwan sits in Nafha prison in the al-Naqab/Negev desert, sentenced last June 6 and now serving five life terms plus 40 years on trumped-up charges of 'complicity' in multiple murder. He is kept in solitary confinement, separated from all other prisoners in Nafha, most of them Palestinian freedom fighters like himself. Marwan has repeatedly denied any involvement whatsoever with the deaths. During the proceedings against him, which began in 2003, he denounced the "show trial" as illegal, the Israeli court without any right to try him.

FREEDOM NOW! Elections for the Palestinian president to succeed Abu Ammar have been called for January 9, 2005. In the name of PLO unity, Barghouti was apparently pressured by the PLO old guard on Nov. 26 to refrain from entering the fray as an independent. But supporters convinced him that the will of the people was for his candidacy. And that his decision not to run would only mask and defer what is already a fierce power struggle for authentic new directions within the Palestine Liberation Organization.

TWO CENTRAL DEMANDS: At this crucial conjuncture, Israeli and international progressives should raise two demands: for Barghouti's immediate release from prison and for the protection of his safety. There is a definite danger the Israeli government may decide -– before or after the election -- to liquidate him if they think he is the true popular choice of the Palestinian masses. They have him in custody, his assassination, or a staged fatal 'accident,' would be child's play. He narrowly survived an Israeli assassination attempt in August 2001. The Israeli Shin Bet (Security Service) is a proven master of all aspects of state murder.

Barghouti will remain a political prisoner in Nafha unless massive pressure is brought to bear both by the new Palestinian leadership, the grassroots Palestinian movements and international solidarity. The Israeli political oligarchy is determined to liquidate or imprison any Palestinian unwilling to accept capitulation under Israeli terms. Central to the immediate struggle, Barghouti (and all other Intifada prisoners) should be freed now to help lead Palestinians –- in the Occupied Territories and the Palestinian Diaspora -- in the crucial transition period to come.

MARWAN VS. ABU MAZEN: It is widely acknowledged in the Palestinian street, where Marwan earned his credentials as the leader of the Intifada, that he is Abu Ammar's popular successor. Significantly, he is probably also the only man who can end the Intifada. It is also clear that Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), whatever his stature as a senior PLO leader, is the candidate of choice of Sharon, his cabal and the Euro-Atlantic power axis -- a man whom they hope to wind around their political finger in any future 'negotiated' settlement. Abbas served briefly as prime minister in 2003, and after a falling out with Arafat over control of security forces was removed. He did not speak again with Abu Ammar until shortly before his death. An al-Aqsa brigade member recently quoted in the media has stated: "We have no trust in Abbas whatsoever. From our past experience he represents the camp of surrender. He is burned on the Palestinian street" [1]. He has been characterized by some Palestinians as the "pampered puppet of the Americans." Moreover, along with class and age bracket cleavages within Palestinian society, a major distinctive gulf is between villagers and refugees in the camps. The latter are far less likely to accept compromised bourgeois figures such as Abu Mazen. They may heed the call of Hamas to boycott the elections -- though that call is binding only on the relatively small number of Hamas members, not their supporters.

MUSTAFA: Mustafa Barghouthi, a civil rights activist critical of Abu Mazen and secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative (Al Mudabara), will also contest the election, but has little mass following. That could change. He is president of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, and director of HDIP, the Health, Development Information and Policy Institute based in Ramallah. He has been an outspoken critic of the PLO old guard for years. His work deserves the more intensified solidarity of the international left [2]. But with the leader of the Intifada in the running, it is Marwan who should be supported for the Palestinian presidency. Israel may indeed have communicated to the PLO oligarchy that Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas share a mutual aim: to keep Barghouti behind bars.

THE PERMANENT STATE OF EMERGENCY: Many Palestinians believe Barghouti is the only man who can end the Intifada. But key figures inside the Israeli political-military elite may fear precisely that: they do not want to see an end to the violence. And actively scheme to engineer its repeated 'churning,' provoking militant groups. They may well want a weak president who will be increasingly discredited in the eyes of the Palestinian masses, thus strengthening the hand of Hamas, the Aqsa Brigades and other militant organizations. As Giorgio Agamben has written: "How could we not think that a system that can no longer function at all except on the basis of emergency would not also be interested in preserving such an emergency at any price?"

That permanent state of exception is the subterfuge under which to continue the expansion of existing settlements, the demoralization of the Palestinian masses, the incessant expropriation of ever more of their land in the West Bank and the effective enclavization of Gaza, its massive spatial quarantine. Barghouti may also sense that it is necessary for future developments to expose this hidden strategy of 'churning' the violence that has been pursued by successive Israeli governments, and is Sharon’s hidden agenda [3].

BUILD SOLIDARITY: Marwan’s decision to run from his prison cell for the presidency only underscores the need to have him outside in freedom in the struggle for justice and a viable path forward for all Palestinians, including the millions of refugees. Though Marwan is known as a 'radical pragmatist' inside the PLO, he has principled militant stands on all key issues regarding a Palestinian state. Barghouti, like Arafat, has been adamant in demanding that al-Quds/East Jerusalem be a future Palestinian capital, and that a real solution must be found for half of his nation rotting in refugee camps across the region. Like Abu Ammar in his final years in the Muqata, Barghouti sits confined by Israel to total isolation in a maximum security prison. Marwan may have in effect already become the Nelson Mandela of the Palestinian liberation struggle. Americans will recall that socialist Eugene Debs ran for the White House from his federal prison cell in 1920, sentenced to ten years behind bars for his opposition to his country’s entry into World War I. Debs garnered almost a million votes.

As Gush Shalom recently reminded the world, and fellow Israelis: Under the British Mandate, Yitzhak Rabin was the leader of Jewish prisoners in Rafah prison camp. Yitzhak Shamir was arrested by the British as a terrorist and exiled to a prison camp in Africa. Menahem Begin, head of the underground Irgun, was branded a terrorist with a big prize on his head after he engineered the bombing in July 1946 of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, where the British Mandatory government and military command were housed. It left nearly a hundred dead. All three later became Prime Ministers of Israel and were received by Britain, their former enemy in Palestine. As was David Ben Gurion, who personally approved the King David Hotel operation from his self-exile in Europe.

THE INTIFADA IS PALESTINE'S WAR OF LIBERATION: When sentenced last June, Barghouti stressed: "The continuation of the intifada is the only path to independence. No matter how many they arrest or kill, they will not break the determination of the Palestinian people. I don’t care whether I am sentenced to one life sentence, or 10 or 50; my day of liberty is the day the occupation ends. [...] The Israeli courts are a partner to the Israeli occupation. The judges are just like pilots who fly planes and drop bombs." During his trial, the Israeli peace bloc Gush Shalom protested demanding: "Barghouti to the negotiating table, not to jail!"

In an article in the Washington Post in January 2002, Marwan stressed: "I am not a terrorist, but neither am I a pacifist. I am simply a regular guy from the Palestinian street advocating only what every other oppressed person has advocated -- the right to help myself in the absence of help from anywhere else. This principle may well lead to my assassination. […] I still seek peaceful coexistence between the equal and independent countries of Israel and Palestine based on full withdrawal from Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 and a just resolution to the plight of Palestinian refugees pursuant to U.N. resolutions" [4]. He was apprehended by the Israeli army in Ramallah on April 15, 2002, and has been illegally held in Israeli jails since then.

A Campaign to Free Marwan Barghouti was launched in 2002. Its advisory committee included Hanan Ashrawi, the late Edward Said, Nelson Mandela and Noam Chomsky. It has an extensive website, providing much material on Barghouti, the 'case' against him, several essays and statements by him on many issues [5]. An International Committee to Free Barghouti was organized in Morocco in late June 2004. Sa’ad Nimr runs the Ramallah headquarters of the campaign to secure Barghouti’s release.

AN ELECTION DOOMED FROM THE START? The poll itself can easily turn out to be a sham. We have no example of a supposedly democratic election under the extraordinary conditions of a massive and oppressive Occupation.

No matter what Sharon 'promises,' the Occupation will hinder Palestinians from traveling between one town and another to vote. With Sharon, the old wisdom remains: watch what he does, not what he says. And remember: he is a virtuoso at sleight of hand, a grand political illusionist. The West Bank today is a mazeway of road blocks and 760 checkpoints that have earned the Occupation the name in Arabic Ihtilal, the Suffocation. Given these blockades, the election will at best be a semblance of popular electoral expression.


We can be certain that the Israeli ruling elite anticipated the present situation. When Barghouti was sentenced last June, they were probably already banking on Arafat's demise, which they themselves may have 'arranged.' They know Barghouti would likely be the most popular leader to emerge, whatever the outcome of a formal election under the strangulation of the Occupation.

What is their strategy? Maybe the surprise release of Barghouti as a 'historic gesture' of reconciliation, with numerous 'strings' attached, is actually contemplated. It seems improbable. Or his freedom as part of a prisoner 'exchange' involving Jonathan Pollard in the U.S. and an Israeli prisoner in Egypt, as has recently been rumored. Or his cold-blooded murder -- even staging an assassination to make it look like an internal Palestinian struggle between Hamas and Fatah. The Israeli political and military machine may indeed be planning to so box in and hinder voters –- while claiming they are doing just the opposite -- that the election result will in the end be rejected by the population, in effect nullifying its validity in the eyes of most Palestinians. That might bolster the popularity of Hamas. Could the Israeli oligarchy want that?

SEPARATION AND DISMEMBERMENT: Their short-term strategy will be to pressure Mahmoud Abbas, should he emerge as 'winner' in the January poll, toward a set of compromises that will in effect produce what Arafat refused to agree to: an Israel-dominated Palestinian Bantustan, an archipelago of enclaves, behind a Great Wall and a high Gaza fence: the 0.5-state solution. The Palestinian refugees will continue to rot in their camps, half a nation in limbo with nowhere to go.

As Ali Abunimah has stressed: "From Israel's perspective, the old guard confirmed in place by flawed elections would continue to offer disastrous concessions as they did throughout the Oslo period. And at worst, they would simply become new scapegoats to whom Israel and the US will deliver impossible demands and then heap blame when they are inevitably unfulfilled. Palestinian leaders must no longer accept this assigned role" [6].

Yet Israel itself has probably already destroyed the geographic basis for any viable two-state arrangement. What exists de facto is indeed two states: Israel and its settler state exclave on the West Bank, with prospects for Gaza to become a fully quarantined isolate under total external Israeli control. As a senior geographer notes: "Israel's military strategy since the outbreak of the second intifada has not been one merely of 'security' or 'counter-terror' but part of a longer term strategy of spatial demolition and strangulation, predicated on two aims: unilateral separation from the Palestinian population and its concomitant territorial dismemberment. Withdrawal from a totally controlled and isolated Gaza, in effect its enclavization, is part of this strategy and the overriding state aim of de-Palestinization" [7].

THE PATH FORWARD: At the present critical juncture, anti-authoritarians should be part of a broad international movement to ensure the emergence of a new Palestinian leadership with strong ties to the Palestinian masses – a leadership that is not a compliant puppet of the Israeli ruling class and the West overseeing a vassal state totally controlled by Israel. The Wall must come down. Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza must be dismantled in toto.

The real need over the longer haul is to build a mass non-violent movement of Israelis and Palestinians toward a single democratic non-national state, a "politics from below," forging bonds of ta'ayush (togetherness) in common struggle, and the return of refugees in massive numbers. Both Israelis and Palestinians need to begin to regain the commons, catalyze new synergy in direct action, engage in the chemistries of reconciliation and communitarian politics from the neighborhood up. Inside Israel, there remains the absolute necessity to move beyond the 'ethnocracy' of apartheid that Zionism has created for the 20 percent of its citizenry that is Palestinian [8].

Direct democracy can only spring from mass and massive unity of purpose and action among Palestinians and Israelis in direct action. Working in stages over say 15 years: from two (or even 1.5) states to one state and on to 'no state' - - forward to a Cooperative Socialist Commonwealth of Canaan in federation with a radically democratized Jordan [9]. Without phased evolvement, accelerated paradigm shift -- and what historian Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin has called "partnership based on the decolonization of Jewish identity in all senses and contexts" -- a unitary state is illusory [10].

Over the shorter term, I would argue the need to pursue a kind of utopian realism, pressing under the extraordinary conditions of the Occupation for a temporary exit. A Palestinian 0.5-state in effect controlled by Israeli nationalists, Israeli and international Capital and its neo-liberal elites is no solution. Yet its nominal creation holds out a desperately needed space for Palestinians inside a compromised partial autonomy in which to breathe from the Ihtilal and its orchestrated nightmare.

From that minimal base, efforts can be made as Palestinians regain the commons to demand elections in the diaspora, as emphasized by Ali Abunimah [11].

1. See Josh Mintik, "Abbas Faces Rough Ride to Win Over Palestinians," The Star-Ledger, 27 Nov. 2004.

2. For information on Dr. Barghouthi, links to articles, see http://www.almubadara.org. The Palestine Monitor, associated with HDIP, is also an excellent source on his work and on Palestine, see http://www.palestinemonitor.org . See in particular the March 2004 interview at http://www.palestinemonitor.org/mustafa/hope_out_o f_ramallah.htm

3. For an in-depth analysis of how Sharon has repeatedly acted to block any genuine dialogue for peace, see Henry Siegman, "Sharon and the Future of Palestine," New York Review of Books 51 (19), 2 Dec. 2004, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/17591 See also Ghazi-Walid Falah, "The geopolitics of repartition, enclavization and the demise of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict," forthcoming 2005.

4. See http://www.freebarghouti.org/prespectives/wp-ed.ht ml

5. See http://www.freebarghouti.org An important interview with Barghouti in November 2001 with the Israeli daily paper Ma'ariv is at: http://home.mindspring.com/~fontenelles/barghouti. htm For a report on his sentencing, see: "Arafat’s Likely Successor Gets Five Life Terms," http://www.fromoccupiedpalestine.org/node.php?id=1 307

6. A. Abunimah, "What Palestinians Should Do Now," http://info.interactivist.net article, 28 Nov. 2004.

7. Falah, "The geopolitics of repartition," ibid.

8. See interview with Uri Davis: http://mumbai.indymedia.org/en/2004/10/209807.shtm l The parties Balad (National Democratic Alliance) and Hadash/Jabha (Democratic Front for Peace and Equality) in Israel campaign for such a transformation. See also the basic tenets of the Olga Document on the Future of Israel, http://www.apomie.com/olga.htm .

9. B. Templer, "Tanks & Ostriches," The Dawn, August 2004, http://the-dawn.org/2004/08/ostriches.html

10. Quoted in Yael Lerer, "The Word in Times of Crisis," http://oznik.com/words/041116.html. Note also Lerer’s significant project in the fusion of a binational culture, Al Andalus.

11. Abunimah, ibid."