The 'Palestinian Napoleon' behind Mideast cease-fire

In jail and on trial for terrorism, Marwan Barghouti brokered a deal with militants.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When the Israeli and Palestinian Authority prime ministers met Tuesday, they did so with an unprecedented display of bonhomie and some trusted ministers. But one man was missing - a man widely credited with engineering the Palestinian cease-fire that led to the meeting and generated momentum for the US-backed peace plan under discussion.

Marwan Barghouti had a good excuse for missing the carefully scripted meeting: Since April 2002, he has languished in Israeli jails Branded a "master terrorist" by Israel, hailed by others as a Palestinian Napoleon (a nod to his diminutive size and perceived ambition), Mr. Barghouti is considered a likely successor to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Barghouti's ability to organize a cease-fire from a prison cell when Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas was failing to do so is testament to his credibility among Palestinians of all factions.

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"It is quite extraordinary," says Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher. "This [cease-fire] strengthens his position as a potential successor, assuming in the course of some prisoner exchange he is released."

On Wednesday, the US signaled its approval of Mr. Abbas's efforts by announcing $30 million in aid Wednesday. Also Wednesday, Israeli troops pulled out of the West Bank town of Bethlehem, a condition of the "road map" peace plan under which Israel must reduce troop presence in the territories to September 2000 levels.

Palestinian obligations include maintaining the cease-fire. For some, Barghouti's role in this cease-fire raises questions as to whether Israel, despite its official rhetoric, is working to bolster his image in the hope of promoting new Palestinian leadership.

Barghouti reportedly communicated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders in Syria and Lebanon via letter and through envoys.

Yossi Sarid, leader of the leftist Israeli political party Meretz, suggested to the media that "it is a sort of a coordination between the Israeli government and Barghouti in order to ... strengthen his position."

Barghouti's relative youth (he is 44), street credibility, and reputation for honesty make him second only to Arafat in popularity among Palestinians.

Those qualities, in addition to his fluent Hebrew and the fact that he is not an Islamist, also make Barghouti attractive to Israeli officials looking for future interlocutors.

While these traits make Bar ghouti a threat to the old guard Palestinian leadership, for now they need him. "This government hasn't any minister who has the influence in the West Bank that Marwan has," says Hafez Bar ghouti, a distant relation and editor of Jerusalem's Al Hayat al Jedidah newspaper. "He can deliver."

So it is likely that Barghouti's name was high on the list at the Tuesday meeting, where Abbas made prisoner release a priority.

After their public remarks, which were broadcast live, the two leaders met privately to discuss joint committees to deal with security, humanitarian aid and other issues.

Abbas also asked that Arafat, confined to his Ramallah compound for over a year now, be allowed to leave. Sharon, who has worked with the US to marginalize the PA president, said he would consider allowing the aging leader to move to Gaza, adding, according to the Israeli press, "as long as he stays there."

If Arafat is a lion in winter, Barghouti is a clear heir apparent and has already succeeded Arafat as a symbol of resistance for many Palestinians.

A tiny fireplug of a man who wields a sharp wit in three languages, he has a politician's instinct for image and theatre. At the onset of the intifada, he would position himself for TV interviews so that Israeli tanks confronting stone-throwing Palestinian boys appeared in the background.

He invited Nelson Mandela to attend his (still ongoing) trial and has used hearings to announce that Israel, not he, is on trial for its occupation.

"He is incredibly influential," says Diana Buttu, a legal adviser to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, who points out that Barghouti grew up here, unlike Abbas or Arafat.

"He is very charismatic, principled, and clear with Israelis: 'We don't hate you; we hate your occupation,'" Ms. Buttu adds.

Barghouti was born just north of Ramallah to the poor wing of a prominent West Bank family. He got off to an early political start, joining Fatah at 15 and becoming a student leader at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank.

His political activism led to jail time. Barghouti reportedly earned his high school diploma in jail. Subsequent sentences meant it took him 11 years to earn his university degree in history and political science.

In 1987, when the first Palestinian uprising began, Israel exiled him to Tunis and from there he went to Jordan, becoming the youngest ever member of the Fatah revolutionary council in 1989.

Barghouti returned to the territories in 1994 under the Oslo peace process as an enthusiastic supporter of those negotiations. He soon began speaking out against Israeli settlement construction and the corruption of Arafat's government.

As the Oslo talks dissolved into violence, Barghouti began advocating a more militant approach to Israel. "We tried seven years of intifada without negotiations, then seven years of negotiations without intifada. Perhaps it is time to try both simultaneously," he said in November 2000.

While his preferred means changed, his end didn't: His stated goal has always been complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories.

With his arrest in April 2002, he is charged with financing or instigating 37 attacks which killed 26 Israelis and hurt dozens. He faces life in prison.

Barghouti's stock among Palestinians has soared even higher since his arrest, but tellingly, Arafat has been largely silent about him.

Indeed, though Barghouti has written that he expects to lose his life resisting Israel, some observers say he faces a greater risk from his colleagues.

Hafez Barghouti says there are those "inside Fatah who want him to be killed, not freed, because he's clean, because so many of them are corrupt."

He adds: "They are afraid of Marwan when he gets out, because he's a popular leader who is accepted by Hamas, Islamic Jihad... he is a national leader and that makes them afraid."

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