The fall and rise of Marwan Barghouti

  • Themes: Geopolitics, Israel, Palestine

Long regarded as a future leader of Palestine, Marwan Barghouti has been imprisoned by Israel since 2002. What would his release mean for the future of the Middle East?

Palestinian youths carrying flags with an image of Marwan Barghouti.
Palestinian youths carrying a flag bearing a drawing of Marwan Barghouti. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

In the early hours of 5 March 2002, a 21-year-old officer in the Palestinian navy stood across the street from the Sea Food Market restaurant in downtown Tel Aviv carrying an M16 rifle, grenades and a knife.

As he walked from the Maariv bridge, closing in on the restaurant, Ibrahim Hassouna fired at the diners inside, shattering the glass door and windows. Two grenades thrown into the fleeing crowd fell as duds to the floor but, once his gun jammed, Hassouna drew his knife. He killed two civilians and stabbed a police officer to death by the time Israeli security forces shot him.

Hassouna was a member of Kataib Shuhada Al-Aqsa, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an underground terrorist organisation affiliated with Fatah and Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority (PA). Named after the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which stood in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City, the militant group had mobilised at the start of the Second Intifada to drive out Israeli forces and settlers from the West Bank and Gaza. Before the attack, Hassouna filmed a video explaining his actions and aspiration for martyrdom. He travelled to the restaurant with two men who remained in the vehicle amid the sound of gunfire and sirens. At 3 a.m., Israeli prosecutors later alleged, one of them phoned Marwan Barghouti to confirm that the attack had taken place.

Marwan Barghouti was a charismatic lieutenant and potential successor to Yasser Arafat, who led resistance from the streets of Gaza and the West Bank through the 1990s before becoming a supporter of the two-state solution presented by the Oslo Accords. Israeli security services regarded him as the ‘chief of staff of the Intifada’ for his leadership of militant forces. Barghouti had long denied that he was a commander of the Al-Aqsa Brigades but, to Israeli intelligence, the phone call on the night of the Sea Food Market attack firmly established his involvement with the group.

Imprisoned for his connection to terror attacks during the Second Intifada, Barghouti has been an inescapable shadow over discussions about the future of Palestine and Israel for over two decades. He consistently tops polls on the question of succession once Mahmoud Abbas, the 88-year-old leader of the Palestinian Authority, leaves office. Many figures, including Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu, have cited him as a ‘Palestinian Mandela’, who could assemble disparate political groups as the core of an independent Palestine. On the Israeli right, however, Barghouti’s associations with terror delegitimise any claim he might have to lead. ‘Calling Barghouti a leader and parliamentarian is like calling Assad a paediatrician’, Benjamin Netanyahu said in 2017, in reference to the Syrian president’s earlier role as a doctor.

The possibility of Barghouti’s release, whether in exchange for hostages or as part of a political settlement, has been a recurring topic since his arrest; Israel’s destructive war in Gaza has only increased the salience of his possible role. The prospect and opportunities of his freedom are now conjoined with the inescapable question of ‘What comes next?’ for many Palestinians, Israelis, and Western observers. In early February 2024, Hamas rejected a truce offer that would not have released Barghouti. ‘There is no other solution but a complete and final victory,’ Netanyahu declared in response to Hamas’ counterproposal.

After the 7 October massacre, and the drastic failure to predict Hamas’ attack, Netanyahu is particularly wary of his own fraught history with the release of Palestinian prisoners. In 2011 Israel released Yahya Sinwar, the military leader of Hamas, along with 1,025 other prisoners, in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israel Defence Forces (IDF) soldier kidnapped in 2006. Despite hopes that he had moderated his stance, Sinwar orchestrated the 7 October attacks in which over 1,200 Israelis were murdered and 253 hostages were taken. ‘Sinwar was treated in Israel for brain cancer and went back and did a second Holocaust,’ Liran Berman, whose twin brothers were kidnapped from a kibbutz near the Gaza border, told me – referring to surgery Sinwar received during his imprisonment. ‘I’m not very hopeful that Barghouti will lead the Palestinian people to a better future.’

Marwan Barghouti’s life is entwined with the turbulent path of Palestinian nationhood – from aspiration to despair, through violence and negotiation. Born in 1959 in a village outside Ramallah in the West Bank – eight years before the occupation by Israel after the Six Day War – Barghouti joined Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) at 15. He came from a large family in the clan-rooted politics of Palestine and many of his relatives are active in the nationalist cause. At 18, Barghouti was imprisoned for involvement with militant groups and he completed his high school diploma, and learned Hebrew, in prison.

After his release, Barghouti enrolled at Birzeit University and became the leader of the student council. ‘Marwan used to give speeches urging people to go out and demonstrate and telling them what they were resisting: the settlements, the arrests, the destruction,’ recalled Said Ghazali, a fellow student council member. ‘He is charismatic, a good orator and he understands the power of body language when he speaks.’

In 1989 Barghouti joined the Fatah Revolutionary Council as its youngest member. During the First Intifada, in 1987, he became a protest leader in the West Bank and was eventually deported to Jordan. He returned from exile in 1994 and was elected to the Palestinian legislature as a representative from Ramallah in 1996.

The Oslo Accords, signed in 1993 by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, set in motion a gradual transfer of governing authority to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinian politics featured a sprawling group of nationalist factions, Islamist groups, warlords and clans jockeying for power in the arena opened by the accords. Around Arafat was the old guard of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, who had returned with him from exile in Tunis. Barghouti was a rising star of a younger generation of activists who had grown up in the febrile environment of the occupied territories.

Barghouti’s faction within Fatah, Tanzim, was a grassroots organisation that arose in the 1990s in the West Bank as an armed wing of Arafat’s party. It was estimated that there were thousands of members, presenting both a core constituency within Fatah and a potential opposition to Arafat’s authority. Barghouti was a popular, energetic leader whose control of the street movement marked him apart from the older elite around Arafat. ‘When I met him, people pointed out to him how young I was,’ one associate remembered, ‘but Marwan didn’t care about age, he cared about ability.’

Barghouti was wary of division among the nationalist movements and the militancy that animated many of the younger generation. As the peace talks broke down and the street movements became restless towards the end of the 1990s, he sensed the resentment festering. ‘To avoid internal fighting’, he stated, ‘We need to save energy for confrontations with Israel which will be imminent later this year.’

Barghouti and the Tanzim were an enigma to outside observers, who understood the motivations and tactics of Arafat’s PLO but lacked intelligence on the homegrown nationalist movement. Since the 1970s, the CIA had built contacts in the PLO and assumed a central adjudicating role on security issues between them and the Israelis. Geoff O’Connell was the station chief in Tel Aviv from 1999 and led weekly meetings of the Israeli and Palestinian security services, some of which Barghouti attended. ‘His statements were logical, well-reasoned and moderate in comparison to the rhetoric flying around at the time,’ O’Connell reflected. ‘I believe Arafat feared him; groups like Tanzim loved him; and the PA security services respected, but were suspicious of him,’ he explained. ‘I think the Israelis found him a dilemma.’

The Second Intifada broke out in September 2000 after a provocative visit by Israeli politician Ariel Sharon to the Al-Aqsa compound on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Islam. ‘We tried seven years of intifada without negotiations, then seven years of negotiations without intifada. Perhaps it is time to try both simultaneously,’ Barghouti declared in November 2000. His leadership of the Second Intifada was one facet to his strategy for Palestinian statehood that intertwined violence and negotiation. He later told interrogators that he engaged in violence so that ‘in the future, he would be able to say of himself that he acted for peace and also in war, whereas other leaders did not dirty their hands. Thus he would gain the sympathy of the Palestinian people.’

The Israeli counteroffensive against the Intifada, beginning in late-March 2002, materialised as Operation Defensive Shield, the largest military operation in the West Bank since the Six-Day War in 1967. In Ramallah, the IDF pursued Barghouti for his connection to the Al-Aqsa Brigades. Israeli intelligence tracked his flight between safe houses through tapped phone calls and, 18 days after the start of the operation, an Israeli double agent inside Hamas confirmed Barghouti’s precise location.

A unit of the Duvdevan – an elite force in the IDF which operated behind enemy lines – quickly surrounded the area. ‘We closed off the structure, and a few minutes before we went in to carry out the searches, they told us the name of the operation was Ray of Light’, one soldier recalled. ‘That was enough for us: We knew that was the codename for the capture of Tanzim forces chairman Marwan Barghouti.’

‘I immediately arrived and took over command of the operation,’ Ilan Paz, head of the IDF in Ramallah, explained to me. ‘We had special units to penetrate the building but we didn’t have to use them. When Barghouti understood that he was surrounded, he came out peacefully.’

Barghouti’s capture was a major success for Operation Defensive Shield. He was tried two years after his arrest, though he publicly refused to recognise the legitimacy of the Israeli court. Barghouti was convicted on five counts of murder, as well as attempted murder, conspiracy to murder, and membership of a terrorist organisation.

Barghouti’s fall laid the groundwork for his emergence as a beacon of Palestinian resistance. His wife, Fadwa, and his children campaign for his release and international figures have championed his identity as the ‘Palestinian Mandela’ – even launching their push for his freedom from Robben Island. The image of Barghouti raising his cuffed hands in the air in an act of defiance at his trial has become a potent symbol of his martyrdom in the occupied territories, displayed on posters, flags, and walls.

In the wake of his arrest, Barghouti’s support surged and he has contemplated running for president of Palestine from prison. In 2005, after Arafat’s death, he broached running against Mahmoud Abbas but withdrew at the urging of his wife and political allies. Said Ghazali, who had attended Birzeit University with Barghouti, tore up the picture of him in his office, so furious was he at the squandered opportunity to challenge Abbas. Yet his popularity persists. In polls conducted before the 7 October attacks, Ismael Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas’ political wing, beat Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, 54 per cent to 36 per cent. Barghouti, however, in a hypothetical poll, defeated Haniyeh 61 per cent to 34 per cent.

‘What he really brings to the table is the prospect of two things Palestinians desperately need,’ Khaled Elgindy, a former advisor to the Palestinian leadership on negotiations, explained to me. ‘One is national leadership, and the second is national unity.’

The 2006 Palestinian Prisoners’ Document, organised by Barghouti and signed by Palestinian prisoners confined in Israeli jails, was a pivotal attempt at internal reconciliation amid escalating tensions between Fatah and Hamas. Omar H. Rahman, an analyst at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs and former journalist in Palestine, told me: ‘Palestinians broadly identify with the political prisoners and view imprisonment at the hands of Israel’s military occupation as a badge of patriotism.’ Implicitly acknowledging a two-state solution, the Prisoners’ Document – representing a diverse array of factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad – endorsed the Palestinians’ right to resist Israeli occupation through various means, including armed struggle against settlers and soldiers, while concurrently advocating for political reforms and the establishment of a national unity government.

The Prisoners’ Document encapsulated Barghouti’s appeal and power across the nationalist movement. He is a savvy political actor who understands his popularity but has also been conscious of the risk of alienating the Fatah establishment – despite his accusations of its corruption. ‘He’s that rare figure in Palestinian politics who transcends the factional divide in its worst moments of fragmentation,’ Rahman explained. ‘Hamas lacks a certain kind of international legitimacy and knows it can only play a supporting role in the Palestinian liberation movement. There needs to be someone else at the helm and Barghouti can be that, as he is respected by all factions.’

‘There is something new in him because he hasn’t governed and has always been a political figure,’ a senior Palestinian official and supporter of Barghouti, told me. Barghouti has enemies in the Palestinian Authority, however, and among other ambitious politicians who might hope to succeed the aging Abbas. If he is not released, the obstacles to translating popular support to actual governance would be considerable. One option could be that the two positions, concurrently held by Arafat and then Abbas, of chairman of the PLO and president of Palestine be divided to allow someone else to conduct the administrative duties as president while Barghouti holds the symbolic mantle of the chairmanship.

In prison, Barghouti has read widely – including biographies of Israeli politicians – and earned a PhD in political science. His interpretation, expressed in an interview while in prison, of the road to Palestinian statehood focuses on the consolidation of the nationalist groups around a belief that ‘national unity is the sine qua non for victory by any liberation movement or oppressed people’. Negotiations, he argues, depend on an Israeli ‘de Gaulle or de Klerk’ and the careful use of violent resistance when necessary.

In Barghouti’s worldview, there is a scale of forceful action that the Palestinians could take, from mass demonstrations to terror attacks, to pressure the Israelis. ‘They can select the form of resistance most appropriate to each stage on the basis of their own intimate knowledge and experience of the struggle’, he has stated, ‘as they have done effectively many times before.’ The Second Intifada, he said to his interrogators after his arrest, ‘was supposed to be a popular uprising, but things got out of hand.’ He had wanted to restrict attacks to Israeli settlements and soldiers and not within the borders of Israel itself, he said, but often he could not control his forces.

Figures on the Israeli left have advocated for Barghouti’s release, citing his popularity and relative moderation on political violence; Shimon Peres indicated openness to releasing Barghouti during his campaign for the Israeli presidency in 2007. Ami Ayalon was head of the Shin Bet – Israel’s internal security service – in the years leading up to the Second Intifada and he disliked the spectacle of Barghouti’s trial. To Israelis, ‘he became a personal representation of all the evil, all the terror,’ Ayalon told me. ‘He became a leader because we transformed him into a leader.’ Before his detention, Barghouti had been a popular figure but part of a large political cast around Arafat. The imprisonment set him apart. ‘He is a living Shahid’, Ayalon said, using the term that denotes a martyr in Islam.

Since his election in 2005, Abbas’ support has plunged due to endemic corruption in the West Bank. Hamas also became unpopular for its mismanagement of Gaza before 7 October. ‘Not having a record has been really helpful in a period in which Palestinian progress has stalled,’ Michael Robbins, director of Arab Barometer said of Barghouti. ‘People project onto him what they want to think and that would be a real strength should he be released.’ On the eve of 7 October, 24 per cent of respondents in Gaza said they would vote for Haniyeh, 12 per cent for Abbas, and 32 per cent for Barghouti. In the West Bank, dissatisfaction with Abbas further benefitted Barghouti, who received 35 per cent support, with 11 per cent going to Haniyeh and only six per cent to Abbas.

An aura exists around Marwan Barghouti among Palestinians and many Israelis. His withdrawal from day-to-day politics has made him a canvas for others’ aspirations and fears. Questions around his release and possible role have percolated for over two decades yet, ultimately, the reality is that Israel controls Barghouti’s freedom and such a revolutionary intervention in Palestinian politics is contingent on their motivations and goals. The Israeli political and security establishment’s perception of Barghouti, therefore, is the ambiguous factor on which much of the current debate about hostages, ceasefires and statehood depends. It is a dilemma rooted in Barghouti’s initial capture in April 2002.

The Israeli decision to apprehend Barghouti alive was, in part, shaped by an assessment of the potential repercussions had he met a different fate. ‘The only thing worse than a led uprising is an unled one,’ a former intelligence official noted to me. The assassination of another Tanzim leader in early 2002 had, Barghouti told an interviewer, inspired Fatah to step up attacks on Israel. If Barghouti had been killed, the response would have been even greater.

Concerns over the martyrdom of Palestinian leaders did not prevent other assassinations during the Second Intifada, however. After the outbreak, the Shin Bet and IDF expanded its targeted killings of terrorists. Where once they had preferred to arrest targets, the new strategy deemed that too difficult in the occupied territories. As such, ‘you have no choice – you are both prosecutor and defence counsel, both judge and executioner’, one official told the cabinet.

The political leadership explicitly instructed the Shin Bet and the military to capture Barghouti alive. ‘Early in the Second Intifada there was a thought to assassinate him and then there was a decision not to,’ Gonen Ben Itzhak, the Shin Bet officer who coordinated Barghouti’s capture, confirmed to me. ‘It was a decision taken not in the Shin Bet, but by the prime minister.’ When Barghouti was located, this was emphasised to the soldiers on the ground. ‘We were told something we rarely heard,’ one of the Duvdevan soldiers told Haaretz in 2016 about the seizure of Barghouti, ‘namely that the order to capture him was a directive of the prime minister, Ariel Sharon.’

Ariel Sharon and the Israeli cabinet wanted to prosecute Barghouti for his role in the Second Intifada but they also understood the power of holding a popular candidate who could succeed Yasser Arafat. Arafat was 73 in 2002 and his grip on Palestinian politics was weakening as alternative groups, like Hamas, and younger leaders – with Barghouti at their head – challenged his authority. According to the New York Times, an advisor to Sharon anonymously said in 2002 that the Israelis would consider freeing him at some point as a successor to Yasser Arafat. The Israeli outlook held that, at a strategic juncture, he could be wielded as a nuanced instrument, aligning with the ever-shifting dynamics of the Palestinian political landscape. ‘Barghouti is a playing card and the Israelis have taken an ace and hidden it away for later use,’ Geoff O’Connell, the former CIA station chief in Tel Aviv, told me.

In Israeli national security doctrine, prisoner exchanges are part of the arsenal as companions to the violent tools of counterterrorism. Barghouti’s arrest was not orchestrated in a masterplan to reshape Palestinian politics, but the considerations behind his arrest and theoretical release underscore the strategic opportunities Israel has looked for in holding him.

In 2004, a former senior Israeli official told me, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Danny Ayalon – who had previously served as Ariel Sharon’s foreign policy advisor – approached Condoleezza Rice, the American national security advisor. Ayalon suggested that, in exchange for the release of Barghouti, the United States would release Jonathan Pollard, a former CIA analyst who had spied for Israel. Neither the State Department or the CIA were aware of Ayalon’s request. Rice dismissed the idea out of hand – Pollard would ultimately be released in 2015 – yet the precedent is there.

Barghouti’s release is subject to an eddying set of contingencies – and his leadership of the Palestinian Authority even more so. Yet the war in Gaza has forced the Palestinian question back onto the international agenda. The United States and the Middle Eastern powers are grappling with the resurgence of Palestine’s centrality to the regional order. ‘It would take a big push from Washington for Israel to see the strategic value of having a Palestinian leader who one could preside over Gaza’s reconstruction,’ Khaled Elgindy, who wrote a book on the history of US policy towards Palestine, told me. ‘This isn’t something that was a priority for the Americans before, but maybe they’re beginning to see the error of their ways.’

According to reports, Bill Burns, the director of the CIA, has conveyed interest in the idea of exchanging hostages for Palestinian prisoners, including Barghouti. ‘Barghouti is no Nelson Mandela, but he is a respected political leader’, John Sawers, the former head of MI6 outlined to me in November 2023. ‘If the Israelis could ever bring themselves to using him as an asset, rather than locking him away, then we might be in different territory.’

Marwan Barghouti is a synecdoche in the wider reckoning with Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s strategy is premised upon a façade of military victory and the total destruction of Hamas rather than engagement with the enmity that produced the 7 October attack or a postwar vision for Israel and Palestine. Already fracturing before the attacks, Israel has experienced a profound crisis of identity and security, and concern for what can be done to alleviate future horror. ‘Netanyahu is causing damage every minute he stays in office,’ Gonen Ben Itzhak, who has become a prominent campaigner against the government’s unpopular judicial reforms, said to me, ‘and we need to be realistic.’ He continued: ‘I chased Barghouti for a very long time, I arrested him, and now I don’t see a problem in releasing him.’

For Ami Ayalon, the former director of the Shin Bet, Barghouti’s release offers the only realistic route to ending the current conflict and preventing a resurgence of Palestinian terror. ‘It’s a combination of rationality, pragmatism and finding legitimacy in the Palestinian eyes,’ Ayalon told me. ‘If our goal was to create the next Palestinian leader, we succeeded,’ he explained. ‘Barghouti is not against the state of Israel or a two-state solution, and he was a leader who brought together Hamas prisoners, Islamic Jihad prisoners and Fatah prisoners.’

In Palestine, there is a common sense of despair in the face of Israel’s ruinous military campaign and widespread civilian casualties. ‘You wonder how he can be the hope in a situation where there is no hope. If I think about it mathematically it does not add up,’ a senior Palestinian official observed to me. ‘But that’s not how history and politics work.’ Paradoxically, the destruction in Gaza has forced the questions of the aftermath and drawn the attention of outside powers back to a two-state solution. ‘It’s more than realistic,’ the official said of the prospect of Barghouti’s freedom, ‘it’s become a probable scenario.’

Dialogue with Marwan Barghouti could build on meaningful precedent. Israeli history demonstrates that it is a country accustomed to negotiations with former antagonists when necessary. In 1978, the Camp David Accords were signed between Israel and Egypt to resolve the aftermath of the 1967 and 1973 wars between the countries. Yasser Arafat was the negotiating partner with whom Yitzhak Rabin finalised the initial Oslo Accords, despite the wars and campaigns of terror that lay behind them. The sobriquet of ‘Palestinian Mandela’ is loaded and the national circumstances considerably different, but the elevation of Mandela to the South African presidency is a parallel to the ideas for Barghouti’s release. In the seven years before his release, the National Intelligence Service met extensively with Mandela to better understand his worldview, approach to violence, and ambitions; they had 47 meetings in all, some lasting over seven hours.

‘You don’t make peace with friends,’ Yitzhak Rabin once said. ‘You make it with very unsavoury enemies.’ The Biden administration reportedly hopes to tackle the concatenation of Middle East crises jointly, with a hostage deal leading to a two-state solution, underpinned by the normalisation of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia to balance against Iran’s regional assertiveness. At the heart of that system of nesting dolls, the question of Palestine rests uneasy but unavoidable. Amid hopes of statehood, fear of terror, and machinations of realpolitik, Marwan Barghouti is a card yet to be played.


Angus Reilly