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Palestine's Mandela

Photo of Uri Avnery

The division of the Palestinian territories into a ‘Hamastan’ in the Gaza Strip and a ‘Fatahland’ in the West Bank is a disaster. A disaster for the Palestinians, a disaster for peace, and therefore also a disaster for Israelis.

Will the Palestinians overcome this split? It seems that the chances for that are getting smaller by the day. The gulf between the two parties is getting wider and wider.

The Fatah people in the West Bank, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, condemn Hamas as a gang of fanatics, who are imitating Iran and are guided by it, and who, like the Ayatollahs, are leading their people towards catastrophe. The Hamas people accuse Abbas of being a Palestinian Marshal Pétain, who has made a deal with the occupier and is sliding down the slippery slope of collaboration. The propaganda of both sides is full of venom, and the mutual violence is reaching new heights.

It looks like a cul-de-sac. Many Palestinians have despaired of finding a way out. Others are searching for creative solutions. Afif Safieh, the chief of the PLO mission in Washington, for example, proposes setting up a Palestinian government composed entirely of neutral experts, who are neither members of Fatah nor of Hamas. The chances for that are very slim indeed.

But in private conversations in Ramallah, one name pops up more and more often: Marwan Barghouti.

‘He holds the key in his hand,’ they say there, ‘both for the Fatah-Hamas and for the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.’

Some see Marwan as the Palestinian Nelson Mandela. In appearance, the two are very different, both physically and in temperament. But they have much in common.

Both became national heroes behind prison bars. Both were convicted of terrorism. Both supported violent struggle. Mandela supported the 1961 decision of the African National Congress to start an armed struggle against the racist government (but not against white civilians). He remained in prison for 28 years and refused to buy his freedom by signing a statement denouncing ‘terrorism’. Marwan supported the armed struggle of Fatah's Tanzim organization and has been sentenced to several life terms.

But both were in favour of peace and reconciliation, even before going to prison. I saw Barghouti for the first time in 1997, when he joined a Gush Shalom demonstration in Harbata, the village neighbouring Bil’in, against the building of the Modiin-Illit settlement that was just starting. Five years later, during his trial, we demonstrated in the courthouse under the slogan ‘Barghouti to the negotiating table, not to prison!’

There is hardly anyone who is more popular with the Palestinian public than Marwan Barghouti. In this, too, he resembles Mandela while in prison.

It is difficult to explain the source of this authority. It does not emanate from his high position in Fatah, since the movement is disorganized and there is hardly any clear hierarchy. From the time when he was a simple activist in his village, he rose in the organization by sheer force of personality. It is that mysterious thing called charisma. He radiates a quiet authority that does not depend on outward signs.

The war of vilification between Fatah and Hamas does not touch him. Hamas takes care not to attack him. On the contrary, when they submitted a list of prisoners in exchange for the captured soldier Gilad Shalit, Marwan Barghouti, in spite of his being a Fatah leader, headed the list.

It was he who, together with the imprisoned leaders of the other organizations, composed the famous ‘prisoners’ document’, which called for national unity. All Palestinian factions accepted the document. Thus the ‘Mecca agreement’, which created the (short-lived) Government of National Unity, was born. Before it was signed by the parties, urgent messengers were sent to Marwan, in order to obtain his agreement. Only when this was given, did the signing take place.

How will the Palestinians get out of this bind? How can they re-establish a national leadership that will be accepted by all parts of the people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, able to lead the national struggle and make peace with Israel, when peace becomes possible?

Barghouti's followers believe that at the right time, when Israel comes to the conclusion that it needs peace, he will be released from prison and play a central role in the reconciliation – much as Mandela was released from prison in South Africa when the white government came to the conclusion that the apartheid regime could not be sustained any more. I have no doubt that in order to bring such a situation about, Israeli peace forces must start a big public campaign for Barghouti's release.

What will happen in the meantime?

There is hardly anyone on the Palestinian side who believes that Ehud Olmert will conclude a peace agreement and implement it. Hardly anyone believes that anything will come out of the ‘international meeting’ that is supposed to take place in November. The Palestinians believe that the meeting is a bone thrown by President Bush to Condoleezza Rice, whose standing has been dropping dramatically. And if that has no results?

‘There is no vacuum,’ one of the Fatah leaders told me. ‘If the efforts of President Abbas do not bear fruit, there will be another explosion, like the _intifada_ after the failure of Camp David.’

How is that possible, after Fatah activists have turned over their arms and foresworn violence? ‘A new generation will arise,’ my interlocutor said. ‘As has happened before, one age-group gets tired and its place is taken by the next one. If the occupation does not come to an end and there is no peace, a peace that will enable the members of this generation to turn to the universities, to family, work and business, a new _intifada_ will surely break out.’

To achieve peace, the Palestinians need national unity, much as the Israelis need a consensus for withdrawal. The man who symbolizes the hope for unity among the Palestinians is sitting now in Hasharon jail.

*Uri Avnery* founded the Israeli peace movement Gush Shalom. He was a member of the Knesset 1965-73 and 1979-81.

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