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Could Marwan Barghouti be an asset for an Israel-Hamas deal?

February 9, 2024

Releasing popular jailed Palestinian politician Marwan Barghouti might be an option in the current cease-fire talks. And his return could be a game-changer for Palestinian politics.

A mural in Gaza's Jabalia refugee camp shows jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti
Many murals and graffiti in the Palestinian Territories show the imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan BarghoutiImage: Nidal Al-Wahidi/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance

Any deal between Israel and Hamas including the possible release of Marwan Barghouti, arguably the most famous Palestinian prisoner at present, as part of cease-fire negotiations has yet to be approved by the warring sides.

However, earlier this week, Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas official, put Barghouti's name on a list of demands.

Barghouti, 64, is regarded as one of the leaders of the first intifada, from 1987 to 1993, and was accused by Israel of also having a leading role the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising that ran from September 2000 to February 2005.

Currently behind bars in Israel, Barghouti is a member of the executive arm of Fatah, a Palestinian nationalist political party, and, in absentia, one of several members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the legislature of the Palestinian Authority.

"Barghouti is regarded as the most popular Palestinian politician and as a political leader who could overcome the internal Palestinian divide and unite many Palestinians behind him," Simon Engelkes, the head of the Ramallah office of the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation, told DW.

"For many Palestinians, Marwan Barghouti combines charisma and political clout with credibility as a leadership figure due to his experiences in exile, imprisonment and his role during the second intifada."

Why is Barghouti imprisoned in Israel?

In 2004, Israeli courts sentenced Barghouti to the maximum punishment of five life sentences for the murders of five people, including a Greek Orthodox monk, and an additional 40 years for attempted murder and activity in a terrorist organization.

Despite these sentences, Barghouti registered his own list for the 2021 Palestinian parliamentary election, which were later canceled.

A banner with a picture of jailed Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti and some fellow inmates, with Arabic that reads 'Palestinian National Liberation Movement, Ramallah organization'
Barghouti's political activity from behind bars has led to him being called the 'Palestinian Nelson Mandela'Image: Nasser Nasser/AP Photo

In 2017, he led a 41-day hunger strike of more than 1,500 prisoners in a bid to improve conditions in the prison, such as better visitation rights and access to education and to curb medical neglect toward prisoners as well as the practice of solitary confinement.

He has also published an essay in the US daily paper The New York Times and released a book about his experiences in jail.

Barghouti, who is married to high-profile lawyer and politician Fadwa Barghouti and has four children, also completed his doctorate at the Institute for Research and Arab Studies of the Arab League in Cairo from behind bars.

Various sources state that his book and his doctorate were smuggled out of jail one page at a time.

An ongoing political force

Barghouti's image as a national hero is seen in the form of murals in many places across the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"His history has earned Barghouti the nickname 'the Palestinian Nelson Mandela,'" said Engelkes.

His standing was recently confirmed in a poll by the Ramallah-based think tank Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. It showed that if elections had been held in December 2023, a majority of 55% of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank would have voted for Barghouti as successor to the unpopular 88-year-old Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Qatar-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh ranked second.

Possible 'consensus figure' for Hamas, Fatah

In turn, Hamas, which Germany, the European Union, the United States and some Arab states have classified as a terrorist organization, could benefit from Barghouti's release in various ways. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (right), seen here meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in January, would be replaced by Barghouti if elections were held todayImage: Evelyn Hockstein/REUTERS

Barghouti could be an "acceptable national consensus figure who could forge a reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas in the future," Hugh Lovatt, Middle East expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW. Fatah is the ruling party in the occupied West Bank, while Hamas is in control of Gaza, currently under Israeli siege.

Furthermore, Lovatt believes Hamas wants to demonstrate that it is not only fighting for its own interests but also for those of other Palestinian factions. "This would further boost Hamas' own popularity," he added.

However, if a release were to take place, "it could jeopardize the Palestinian Authority as well as President Abbas' position of power, and Barghouti would most probably have to make political concessions to Hamas, such as participation in a unity government, should he end up in political responsibility," Engelkes added.

Concerns over 'blood on his hands'

A potential release of Barghouti would be supported not only by Hamas and the Palestinian population but could also find conditional favor in Israel.

Ami Ayalon, former director of Israel'sShin Bet security service, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz this week that "as part of an overall deal that includes the return of all the hostages, we must release Marwan Barghouti, both because the return of the Israeli hostages is the closest thing possible to a 'victory picture' [for Israel] in the current Gaza campaign and because Marwan is the only Palestinian leader who can be elected and lead a united and legitimate Palestinian leadership toward a path of mutually agreed separation from Israel."

Marwan Barghouti, center, raises his handcuffed hands in the air
Barghouti was defiant of the authority of the court in Tel Aviv in 2002Image: Brennan Linsle/AP Photo

However, Lovatt doesn't see this happening anytime soon.

"Never say never, but it currently appears difficult to imagine any Israeli government, especially a hard-right government led by Benyamin Netanyahu, releasing Marwan Barghouti, since many Israelis consider him to be a terrorist with blood on his hands," he said.

Continued political engagement

Previous attempts to release Barghouti have failed. In 2011, Hamas tried but did not manage to secure his release during negotiations over the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. In October 2011, Shalit was released in exchange for 1,027 Israeli-held Palestinian prisoners, including Yehia Sinwar, who has become one of the current Hamas leaders in Gaza.

Engelkes also doesn't see Barghouti being released in the near future. "I think it is unlikely that this will happen now as part of an exchange of Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners," he told DW.

Former Israeli hostage negotiator speaks with DW

Meanwhile, a recent comment Barghouti made on the occasion of the anniversary of the first intifada, the Palestinian uprising between 1987 and 1993, clearly signaled his ongoing political commitment.

According to Haaretz, he said that "we must unite and prove to the world that we are a force that is unbreakable in our long and ongoing heroic campaign, created by the resistance, which is launching a new stage in our nation's history."

Edited by: Timothy Jones

Correction, February 10, 2024: The article has been updated to show that Barghouti completed his doctorate at the Institute for Research and Arab Studies of the Arab League in Cairo.

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa