A Mandela for the Palestinians

Observations on the Middle East

One place to look for the "new and different Palestinian leadership" that President George Bush demanded may well be Petach Tikva Prison near Tel Aviv. There, in the solitary confinement of his cell, a Palestinian politician named Marwan Barghouti waits to know what, if any, charges Israel will lodge against him. He is also waiting for his leader, Yasser Arafat, to speak on his behalf. The wait for Arafat will undoubtedly prove the longer.

Arafat's silence over the fate of the man who heads his Fatah organisation in the West Bank and is an elected member of the Palestine Legislative Council surprises no one. In the latest opinion poll over who should become president of Palestine - conducted by the respected Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research - Barghouti received the highest number of votes, after Arafat himself. Barghouti's percentage is rising - 11 per cent last December, 19 now - while Arafat's is on the decline. Many Palestinians said that if George Bush had not offended them by saying Arafat had to go, Arafat's popularity would have fallen even lower.

What Bush did for Arafat, Ariel Sharon is doing for Barghouti, who was arrested on 16 April and accused of leading both Fatah's Tanzim, the militia attached to Fatah, and the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade. Reports of Barghouti's treatment in jail - when his lawyers and civil rights groups said he was brutalised and deprived of sleep during 20 hours of daily interrogations - are turning him into Palestine's Nelson Mandela.

That had not been expected of Barghouti. Born in June 1959 in the village of Kafr Kubr near Ramallah, he was a street activist from his early teens. He took his high school diploma while in an Israeli prison and his many terms in detention while at Bir Zeit University caused him to take 11 years to earn a degree in history and political science. By 1987, the year of the first uprising, or intifada, against Israeli occupation, he had been deported to Jordan. Two years later, Fatah appointed him as the youngest-ever member of its revolutionary council.

In 1994, when he and other deportees came home under the Oslo accords, Barghouti became an enthusiastic advocate of that peace process, urging Israelis and Palestinians to embrace a new era of co-operation. But soon he was speaking against the Israelis for grabbing more Palestinian land for their settlements and criticising Arafat's government for corruption and autocracy. When he stood for the Palestine Legislative Council in 1996, Arafat refused to allow him to run as part of Fatah. Barghouti won anyway as an independent and began making demands for Arafat's accountability. In May 1997, a scandal over missing funds prompted Barghouti to propose a no-confidence motion in Arafat.

When I met him six weeks into the second intifada, which began in September 2000, Barghouti told me the uprising was as much against the Palestinian Authority as the Israelis. For seven years, Palestinian ministers became rich, Palestinian security forces abused Palestinian rights and Israel went on building settlements.

A tough and wiry little guy who usually wore jeans, Barghouti went to every demonstration where kids threw stones at tanks and attended every funeral.

"We tried seven years of intifada without negotiations, and then seven years of negotiations without intifada," he said. "Perhaps it is time to try both simultaneously."

Barghouti may be the kind of leader the Palestinians would elect in a post-Arafat world, but it is doubtful he is the man Bush and Sharon would choose for them. Yet there can be no doubt that anyone whom the US and Israel select will have Barghouti, even in prison, to contend with.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Sexy kids