Amid the graffiti along the barrier wall that separates Israel from the West Bank appear dominant murals depicting Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian political leader who has been imprisoned in Israel since 2002, when security agents abducted him from his home in Ramallah. The image of him raising his shackled hands has become iconographic, proof of his popularity at home and abroad.
Barghouti is Palestine’s most symbolic living figure, often compared to Nelson Mandela. Renewed calls for his release have come at a time when negotiations with Israel to establish the framework of a peace deal are floundering.
During his recent visit to the White House, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas asked President Obama to help mediate Barghouti’s release as part of the negotiations, which are due to end April 29. Abbas, who just had his 79th birthday, is said to regard the 54-year-old Barghouti as his successor. If Barghouti runs for president, he is expected to win easily and prevent Mohammad Dahlan, Abbas’s bitter political rival, from taking office.
Whether Barghouti is able to run is a different matter. An Israeli court convicted him of directing attacks inside the country that killed five people, and he is serving five life sentences. He refused to plead at his trial or be defended by a lawyer, but disavowed attacks on Israeli civilians. He continues to deny the charges on which he was convicted.
Barghouti was the first member of Palestine’s parliament to be arrested by Israel. As a leader of Tanzim, an armed branch of the Palestinian political party Fatah, he was heavily involved in the organization of the first and second intifadas, or uprisings.
His son Qassam told VICE News that although the family isn’t directly involved in the negotiations, he believes that his father will be released at some point.
“It’s very hard for us as a family having my father away from the house,” he said. “It’s been a hard situation to go through.”
When he was 18 years old, Qassam was accused of giving grenades to someone who threw them at Israeli military vehicles in Ramallah — a charge that he claims was hatched to put emotional pressure on his father. He was arrested and sentenced to four years. In a peculiar twist, Qassam even shared a cell with his father for two months.
“It was the last time I saw him,” Qassam said. As a former felon, he is no longer allowed to visit his father in jail.
Barghouti, however, is just one of thousands of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel due to the conflict, many of which are held without charge or trial. Israel agreed to release 104 long-serving prisoners under a deal last July that renewed the peace talks, and has since released three installments of 26 prisoners each. But officials have delayed the planned liberation of the fourth batch, which was due this past Saturday, insisting on an extension of the talks beyond the April 29 deadline as a condition of the release.
This has angered Palestinian authorities, who maintain that Israel is violating its July commitment and undermining the process by expanding settlements in the West Bank. Their Israeli counterparts point to stalled talks and argue that the lack of progress doesn’t justify angering constituents at home with another prisoner release. Meanwhile, hope among US officials that the negotiations will be productive is diminishing by the day.
If Israel truly doesn’t want the talks to collapse, it should fulfill its pledge and release the 26 prisoners as promised. And if the country is serious about peace and fulfilling the prospect of a two-state solution, it will free Barghouti and give Palestinians the conscientious leader they deserve — someone who has the authority to potentially forge a true compromise.