Could he be Palestine’s Nelson Mandela?

Marwan Barghouti - Credit: BDalim Wikimedia Commons (

Andy Gregg assesses the prospects for imprisoned Marwan Barghouti

One of the most effective tools of the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa was to centre activity and campaigning around the figure of Nelson Mandela who represented the banned African National Congress and had spent over 27 years in prison before he was released in 1990. Palestine has an equivalent figure in the person of Marwan Barghouti who has been in prison for more than 20 years. Despite being originally a representative of Fatah which was the leading party in the Palestine Liberation Organisation he is perhaps the only person who could command respect and support from across the Palestinian spectrum including the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Islamic Jihad,  the PFLP and other elements of the liberation struggle against what is increasingly being called the Israeli Apartheid state. Opinion polls since his imprisonment continually show that he remains the most popular potential presidential candidate for the Palestinian people.

Currently Barghouti has been in Israeli prison for 22 years, often in solitary confinement and recently there have been reports that he has been beaten and tortured. He is charged (as was Mandela) with terrorism as well as murder.  Israel accused Barghouti of having founded the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades in the early 2000s and indicted him on 26 charges of murder and attempted murder that was attributed to this group. Barghouti refused to offer a defence or to recognise the authority of the Israeli court. 

Despite his widespread popularity with many of the Palestinian liberation movements there has never been a widespread international campaign to seek his release like that for Nelson Mandela in the 1980s. Like Winnie Mandela, Marwan Barghouti’s wife Fadwa Ibrahim has organised campaigns to secure his freedom as part of potential deals with Israel which have been supported by a number of Israeli peace campaigners as well as the wider Palestine and international Human Rights movements. Sadly such campaigns have not hitherto had anything like the international resonance of those calling for Mandela’s freedom.

Barghouti has always been clear that he supports the Palestinians’ rights to defend themselves militarily within the occupied Palestinian territories against Israeli settlers and the IDF. However he has gone on record as condemning attacks on civilians in  Israel, including the suicide bombings that became so common during the second Intifada.   He was a leading figure in the First and Second Intifadas and whilst he supported the two state solution he is trenchant about the need to expel the estimated 700,000 illegal Jewish settlers from occupied Palestinian territory.

There have been recent moves by the extremist Israeli government and settler movement to invade ever more Palestinian land in the West Bank (and some Israelis are even pushing for a return of settlements in Gaza). These moves as well as the increasingly hard line in Israel since Hamas’s October 7th outrage are making the possibility of any two-state solution less and less viable.

In many ways Barghouti could represent the last chance of success for the two-state solution. He would be the only figure who might be able to unite the various Palestinian groups behind a last attempt to secure a viable Palestinian state alongside an Israel within the 1967 borders. The two-state solution has received only token and occasional support from the wider international community who have turned a blind eye to the constant provocations by the Israelis and the establishment of an increasingly racist system throughout the occupied territories as well as within Israel itself.  Netanyahu of course has always been against the two-state solution and indeed covertly supported Hamas until recently as a way of undermining Palestinian unity and the possibility of a viable Palestinian state. It may of course be that his terrible enduring historical legacy will be that he has finally succeeded in making the establishment of a two-state solution impossible.

For all these reasons it is still unlikely that Barghouti would be freed even if there is a negotiated ceasefire accompanied by an exchange of Palestinian prisoners for hostages. It may also be the case that it is already too late, and the only possible solution will now have to be an eventual democratic one state solution that enshrines the rights of all the peoples within the area between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea. It is difficult if not impossible to see how the current Israeli state could ever live with this option.

When the South African Apartheid state came under challenge from so many in the South African and international community the response was not the establishment of a two-state solution, or one based on ethnic homelands but a nation state that enshrined under its constitution the rights of all of its citizens. For much of the history of the Apartheid South African state such an outcome seemed a complete impossibility as it does now in Israel/Palestine. Equally the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland seemed almost impossible until it wasn’t. Claims by Zionists that a one state solution would inevitably lead to the extermination of the Jewish community are no different to those who claimed that South Africa was necessarily destined for an inevitable ethnic bloodbath. Nelson Mandela was instrumental in ensuring that this outcome did not ensue, and it might take someone of his stature to ensure the same in Israel/Palestine. Marwan Barghouti may be the only person who has the ability to occupy the same sort of role. That is probably why the Israelis are very unlikely to set him free.

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