Marwan Barghouti: Partner for Peace Negotiations or Terrorist?*

Demonstration in Judea and Samaria during the hunger strike of the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, led by Marwan Barghouti. Demonstrators waved yellow Fatah flags and held pictures of Marwan Barghouti. The Arabic reads, "The engineer of the intifada and the symbol of national unity" (Arabs48, May 16, 2017)
Demonstration in Judea and Samaria during the hunger strike of the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, led by Marwan Barghouti. Demonstrators waved yellow Fatah flags and held pictures of Marwan Barghouti. The Arabic reads, "The engineer of the intifada and the symbol of national unity" (Arabs48, May 16, 2017)

This study examines the milestones in the life of Marwan Barghouti in an effort to reveal and analyzethe profound changes that occurred over the years within Fatah and in his positions regarding Israel. One of the issues examined was why Barghouti, who supported the Oslo Accords, was perceived as a peace activist and held talks with a broad spectrum of Israeli public figures, later became a terrorist operative (convicted of the premeditated murder of five people and of directing the second intifada). This study also tries to evaluate the degree of Marwan Barghouti's popularity within Fatah and Palestinian society, and his chances of becoming Mahmoud Abbas' successor. Another issue examined is whether Barghouti, even after having been convicted of terrorist activity during the second intifada, could be a partner in negotiations for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.


Main Points

1.   Marwan Barghouti (Abu Qassam)was born in the village of Kobar (northwest of Ramallah) in 1959. He joined the ranks of Fatah in 1974, at the age of 15. When he was 19 he was detained by Israel for the first time and spent two years in prison for being an operative in a Fatah squad that had carried out a terrorist attack. He enrolled in BirZeit University in 1983. In 1986 he was detained and expelled to Jordan. He returned to Ramallah in 1994 after the Oslo Accords. He finished his BA with a degree in history and political science. He received an MA from BirZeit University in international relations in 1998.

2.   After Marwan Barghouti returned to Judea and Samaria he supported the Oslo Accords,believing that eventually Israel would withdraw from the territories occupied in 1967 and that a Palestinian state would be established. During that period he was in contact with a broad spectrum of public figures in Israel's left, center, and security establishment, who regarded him as an authentic Palestinian leader and a central partner for peace.

3.   In 2000 he headed the Tanzim(Fatah's ground operatives who spearheaded terrorist attacks against Israel during the second intifada). However, he lost the May 2000 Tanzim elections to Hussein al-Sheikh. He refused to cede the leadership because of a dispute over the election. Yasser Arafat, who wanted to encourage competition between the two, preferred not to tip the scales in favor of one or the other. Barghouti's power struggles and his frustration with the conduct of Arafat and the veteran Fatah figures who had returned from Tunis also played an important role in radicalizing his positions on Israel.

4.   Towards the end of the 1990s, and especially after the Camp David failure (July 2000), Barghouti jettisoned the expectations he had fostered after the Oslo Accords. He formed the concept that the only way the Palestinians could realize their rights was through armed struggle. Such a change in perspective made him extremely militant towards Israel when the second intifada broke out, and he became a key figure in fomenting and directing it until he was detained by Israel.

5.   Marwan Barghouti was detained by the IDF on April 15, 2002, during Operation Defensive Shield. On June 6, 2004, the Tel Aviv district court convicted him of the premeditated murder of five people in three shooting attacks carried out in 2001-2002. According to the verdict, he was directly involved in those attacks, and therefore sentenced to five consecutive terms of life imprisonment. He was also sentenced to 20 years in prison for his part in a suicide bombing attack that had been prevented.

6.   In addition to being convicted for murder, Marwan Barghouti was accused of heading a terrorist network that carried out attacks, including those in which he was not personally involved, for which he was sentenced to an additional 20 years. He was found guilty of aiding the terrorists who planned and carried out the attacks by providing them with money and weapons. According to the verdict, "he encouraged and influenced his operatives to continue carrying out lethal attacks; in every way possible, he supported the leaders of the terrorist squads who planned or carried out the attacks…"During the trial he represented himself as a peace-seeking political figure; the judges rejected the claim. During sentencing they determined that he was "up to his ears in terrorist activity" and that as far as he was concerned, the road to peace was paved with the blood of terrorism.

7.   Even after Barghouti's conviction and sentencing, there were public figures in Israel, mainly (but not exclusively) on the political left, who called for his release. They regarded him as a pragmatic Palestinian leader who would one day probably replace Mahmoud Abbas and be Israel's partner for peace. Some of the main arguments for releasing Barghouti are the following:

a.   Argument number one: Marwan Barghouti is not a terrorist but rather a pragmatic political leaderwho lost his way during the second intifada. His release will encourage the moderates in Palestinian society.

b.   Argument number two: Marwan Barghouti's political program is moderate, and is based on the solution of two states living side by side with the 1967 borders.      

c.   Argument number three: Marwan Barghouti is a strong figure.He will be able to lead the Palestinians to peace, despite his actions during the second intifada because you make peace, as the argument goes, with enemies, not friends.

d.   Argument number four: It is not worth Israel's while to keep Marwan Barghouti in prisonbecause he will probably win the Palestinian presidential election. Once he does, Israel will be subjected to extreme pressure to release himas the president-elect of Palestine, and the Israeli government is liable to be forced into releasing him.

8.   The findings of this study, as detailed below, contradict the aforementioned arguments:

a.   Marwan Barghouti is not a leader who went astray but rather a terrorist convicted by a court of law which determined he was "personally and genuinely involved in terrorist attacks against innocent Israeli civilians," all of them carried out inside the Green Line. At the trial the court determined that he tried to represent himself as a "political figure," claiming he was opposed to killing innocent civilians. However, according to the court, his statements "contradict his actions, as they have been proved before this court"(from the sentencing of Marwan Barghouti, June 6, 2004).

b.   After the 1990s (and especially during 2000), Barghouti formed the extremist concept that the use of terrorism and violence was key to conducting the conflict with Israel. According to what he has said and done while in jail, he has not changed the concept and his days as a peace activist belong to history (the years immediately following the Oslo Accords). One of his most prominent talking points is that while negotiating with Israel, the Palestinians must also exert pressure on Israel through terrorism and violence(the so-called "resistance"). Moreover, according to Barghouti, any agreement with Israel must include the implementation of the so-called "right of return" of the Palestinian refugees to their former homes in Israel. Thus there is no way to define Barghouti as a peace activist or pragmatist. Rather, he is motivated by an extremist worldview which can only interfere with genuine Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

c.   Marwan Barghouti is not as powerful a figure as the supporters of his release claim.

1)  However, he is important and influential, leads public opinion polls and enjoys considerable popularity. In addition, he has a very good chance of being Mahmoud Abbas' successor(or of being elected to virtually any other senior political position). However, there is apparently a great discrepancy between his popularity and his genuine influence: as opposed to the era of the second intifada, he does not currently have an organized support network or a firm foothold on the groundto translate his popularity into practical achievements in the Palestinian street or inside and the Fatah movement (as seen by the many difficulties he faces in his extensive activities while in jail, as noted below).

2)  Barghouti has no significant influence on Hamas or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Even if he becomes the leader of the Palestinian Authority (PA), it is unlikely that PA will be able to enforce its authority on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

3)  Thus even if he is elected to succeed Mahmoud Abbas, in ITIC assessment it is very unlikely that his power in Fatah, foothold on the ground or status as compared with Hamas and the other terrorist organizations will enable him to lead the Palestinians to peace negotiations in which any Palestinian leadership will have to make controversial and difficult historic decisions.

d.   It is also argued that if Marwan Barghouti is chosen to succeed Mahmoud Abbas, Israel will receive requests and be under pressure from international agencies to release him. However, his terrorist record may make it easy for Israel to deny the requests: he was convicted on five counts of murder and played a key role in the second intifada (which caused the deaths of more than 1,000 Israelis, most of them civilians), both weapons in Israel's arsenal of reasons not to release him. In addition, his extremist political views and blatant support for continuing anti-Israel terrorism ("resistance") may help Israel resist pressure to release him.

9.   Marwan Barghouti's extremist concepts regarding the conflict with Israel, coupled with his problematic position within the Fatah movement and with the leaders of the Palestinian street, would seem to indicate that the expectations of those who regard him as a potential partner for a peace agreement, a kind of Palestinian Nelson Mandela, are somewhat exaggerated. Given his criminal terrorist record from the era of the second intifada and his extremist views on Israel, which he has continually voiced while in jail, there is every reason to assume that releasing him would not contribute to or promote peace negotiations. Rather, releasing him may undermine the negotiations' chances of success because he would raise extremist, unrealistic demands and encourage the continuation of the campaign of terrorism and violence against Israel. Thus in ITIC assessment, Marwan Barghouti is in no way a suitable partner for peace negotiations with Israel.



10.   This study is based on a variety of sources, which include information about Marwan Barghouti published in the Israeli, Palestinian and Western media; interviews with and statements made by Barghouti; results of investigations conducted into the activities of Barghouti and other terrorist operatives appearing in published legal documents and statements from expert witnesses and seized documents referred to in the documents dealing with his trial (which include verdicts, sentencing and documents published during his trial); documents seized by the IDF during Operation Defensive Shield (which shed light on Barghouti's modus operandi in terrorism during the second intifada); books, academic research and articles written about the second intifada and the era that preceded it.


11.   This study has three parts

a.   Part One – Marwan Barghouti's conduct in the internal Palestinian area and towards Israel

1)  Section 1: Profile of Marwan Barghouti

– Biography

– Milestones in the life of Marwan Barghouti

2)  Section 2: Marwan Barghouti's positions on Israel and his involvement in Fatah's internal power struggles (before the outbreak of the second intifada)

– Overview

– Support for the Oslo Accords and contacts with Israelis

– Radicalization during 2000

– Message of despair to Israeli interlocutors and hint of a threat

– Barghouti's internal struggle in Fatah (2000)

– Nakba Day events: a dress rehearsal for the second intifada (May 2000)

– Marwan Barghouti's actions at the outbreak of the second intifada (September 28-29, 2000)

– Conclusion: What led to the radicalization of Marwan Barghouti?

3)  Section 3: Detention, Trial and Conviction

b.   Part Two – Marwan Barghouti's involvement in terrorism during the second intifada

1)  Section 4: Felonies of which Marwan Barghouti was convicted

2)  Section 5: Terrorist attacks in which Marwan Barghouti was personally involved

– Shooting attack that killed the driver of a car on the Jerusalem-Ma'alehAdumim road (January 12, 2001)

– Shooting attack at the gas station near GivatZe'ev (January 15, 2002)

– Shooting attack at the Sea Food Market restaurant in Tel Aviv (March 5, 2002)

– Attempted suicide bombing attack in the Malha shopping mall in Jerusalem (March 26, 2002)

3)  Section 6: Marwan Barghouti's modus operandi in directing Fatah's terrorist networks

4)  Section 7: Financial support as a means for handling terrorist squads

c.   Part Three – Imprisonment

1)  Section 8: Marwan Barghouti's activities in the internal Palestinian arena during imprisonment

– The campaign for his release

– Palestinian presidential election (January 2005)

– Palestinian Legislative Council elections (January 2006)

– Winning the Central Committee elections (2009, 2006)

– Leading figure in Palestinian public opinion polls

– Conclusion: What are Barghouti's chances of being Mahmoud Abbas' successor?

2)  Section 9:Barghouti's positions on Israel during his imprisonment

– Positions on Israel expressed in statements and interviews smuggled out of jail

– Involvement in the ceasefire (hudna) between the terrorist organizations and Israel (2003)

– The "prisoners' document" (May 2006)

– Marketing the "prisoners' document" to Israeli interlocutors

– Prisoners' hunger strike led by Marwan Barghouti (April-May 2017)

[*]The full version of this study can be accessed in Hebrew on the ITIC website and is currently being translated into English.