Israel's Ha’aretz editorialized last month:
One of the leaders of the Palestinian people has been incarcerated for approximately five years now in Hadarim Prison, in central Israel. The time has come to release him. For years, Marwan Barghouti has tried to persuade Israelis to end the occupation through negotiation. He has gone from one Israeli party headquarters to the next, meeting with politicians across the political spectrum. He tried to persuade them in order to preempt the next confrontation.
During his years in prison, Barghouti has acted to restrain the armed struggle and bolster his people's moderate leadership, using envoys to achieve this goal. Barghouti never left his native West Bank, never took to the habits of power characteristic of the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership in Tunisia. He became a popular leader - especially in the West Bank, and to a lesser degree in the Gaza Strip.
Modern history - including Israel's - has known national leaders who turned to violence and were jailed for years, until they were released to become political leaders who marched their peoples toward independence peacefully. Nelson Mandela is one such example. The leaders of the Zionist undergrounds in prestate Israel are another. Now, Barghouti's turn has come.
The Mandela comparison is apt. Briefly, Marwan Barghouti is a leading figure among the Fatah "new guard" who came of age in the occupied Palestinian territories in the late 70's and 80's, and took a leading role in the first intifada. In 2004 he was convicted of plotting terror attacks, and received several life sentences. He has continued his activism in prison, and was one of the proponents of the 2006 "Prisoner’s Agreement” which sought conciliation between Palestinian factions.
Barghouti features prominently in Sari Nusseibeh's memoir, Once Upon a Country. A student of Nusseibeh's at Bir Zeit University, Barghouti was active in campus government, and was committed both to non-violently resisting the occupation, and to building institutions which would support a modern Palestinian state. Like countless others of his generation, Barghouti spent his youth in and out of Israeli prisons for the crime of being a Palestinian nationalist. Nusseibeh effectively uses Barghouti's increasingly militant stance, and his eventual embrace of violence in response to the continuing Israeli occupation and colonization, to track the growth of radicalism among young Palestinians.
Moshe Elad, writing in Yediot Ahronoth, condemns the idea of Barghouti's release. Elad writes:
The crowning era is over. Reality in the Territories shows that those released on the initiative of the Israeli government are tainted as collaborators and as such become a target for assassination or are destined to be forgotten. Alternately, such a person would become more radical than he was before just so he can clear the collaborator stain. The early release of Barghouti just because Israel is searching for an agreeable partner for negotiations on the future of the Territories would no doubt taint Barghouti as the "ultimate collaborator." In the early 1980s Israel already "crowned" the "Village Committees" in the West Bank and supported several local leaders and mayors.
The crowning era never existed, except in the minds of a few Israelis. The idea that Israel could install its chosen leaders over the Palestinians was always a fantasy. The Village Committees were, from their very beginning, undersood by Palestinians as an attempt by Israel to create leaders subservient to the goals of the Israeli occupation. The bitter irony that these committess almost directly reproduced British efforts to divide and control Palestinian activism during the mandate period was lost on no one, except perhaps the Israeli occupation authorities.
There is no doubt that some elements, hardline Islamists and motorcade-addicted Fatah officials, would try to tar Barghouti as a collaborator, but the fact is that he continues to enjoy more genuine support among Palestinians than any other leader. He combines nationalist credentials with a non-corrupt reputation, having eschewed the trappings of power which many other Fatah leaders embraced during the 1990's, and which led to Hamas's electoral victory in 2006. Barghouti is not a magician, and it's very possible that it's to late even for him to make a difference. It should also be understood, however, that if the occupation, house demolitions, and settlement construction continue unabated, it really doesn't matter who the Israelis release.