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5 August 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 4:08am

Hitchens, Gandhi and me

"The Hitch" says Palestinians need a Mandela, not a Gandhi

By Mehdi Hasan

My column in last week’s magazine focused on the need for a Palestinian (and an Israel) Gandhi figure, to renounce terror on both sides and end the destructive “cycle of violence” and mutual fear and distrust:

“…neither side has ever come even close to producing viable leaders committed to non-violence and able to articulate an authentically Gandhian vision for ending the conflict. On the Palestinian side, Yasser Arafat’s approach can be summed up in his warning about having an olive branch in one hand but a gun in the other. On the Israeli side, Yitzhak Rabin, the joint architect of the Oslo Accords, will always be remembered by the Palestinians as the man who also ordered Israeli troops to “break the bones” of protesters during the first intifada.Those considered to be peacemakers fall hopelessly short of being a latter-day Gandhi or a Middle Eastern Martin Luther King. Waiting for such figures to emerge, even in the Holy Land, could be like waiting for Godot.”

Now Christopher Hitchens has emailed me to say that I may be focusing on the wrong role model – it is a Nelson Mandela that the Palestinians need, not a Mohandas Gandhi. He writes:

“Edward Said used to talk and write about the need for a Palestinian Mandela. I think that might lead you – and such Israelis and Jews as will listen – in a better direction than Gandhi. But the ANC wasn’t pacifist in name or in fact, despite the Mahatma’s early input.”

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The Hitch – and the late Professor Said – have a point. Given his long, and much-deserved, walk to political sainthood, it is easy to forget that Mandela was never a Gandhian pacifist and had militant roots. After the banning of the African National Congress in 1960, it was Mandela who argued for the setting up of a military wing within the ANC.

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Is there a Palestinian Mandela today? The one plausible candidate is secular Palestinian politician and former Fatah militant leader, Marwan Barghouti, currently serving five life sentences for murder in an Israeli jail. He is the man who has played a major role in mediating between Fatah and Hamas and he is the man behind the “Prisoner’s Document” which calls for negotiation with the state of Israel in order to achieve lasting peace.

Liberal Jewish blogger Richard Silverstein singles him out for similar reasons:

“Now, I am not saying that Barghouti believes in non-violence or that he is by any means a holy figure or even the perfect leader. All leaders, both Palestinian and Israeli seem immensely flawed.But Barghouti is someone who could unify both Palestinian factions. Someone who, like Mandela, spent years in the jails of the enemy, who speaks his language, understands his psychological identity, both its strengths and weaknesses. Until he is released from prison, we will not know whether Barghouti is just another corruptible thug, or a powerful leader with a vision for ending the conflict and securing his people’s future.”

In January 2007, the then Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres declared he would sign a presidential pardon for Marwan Barghouti if elected to the Israeli presidency. However, since becoming president, there has been no sign at all that Peres plans to fulfil this pledge.

Talking of Israeli politicians, if the Palestinians need a Mandela, who is the Israeli De Klerk? Sharon (and even Olmert perhaps?) could have tried to lay claim to the mantle of the peace-making Afrikaner leader – but Netanyahu? You must be having a laugh…