Al-Ahram Weekly Online
18 - 24 April 2002
Issue No.582
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Israel's enemy number one

Israel's arrest of Marwan Barghouti, a former advocate of peace and and later the driving force behind the current Palestinian Intifada, has sent shock waves through the Palestinian community and the world. Sherine Bahaa has followed his rise to prominence since his political debut in the 1996 Palestinian National elections. Below, she talks to his wife about the circumstances of his arrest; also re-printed is an earlier interview she conducted with Barghouti himself, where he discusses the aims and effects of the uprising

Marwan Barghouti, the secretary-general of the mainstream Fatah organisation in the West Bank, was not simply on Israel's assassination list; he was on the top of that list. But this fact did not bring about any great changes in the daily schedule of Fatah's leader in the West Bank.

Barghouti, who narrowly escaped an attempt on his life last summer, was very much a presence on the streets until the beginning of the latest invasion of the West Bank on 29 March. Still, it was only last Monday, 15 April, that Israeli forces managed to capture him in Ramallah.

Ever since the assassination of Abu Ali Mustafa, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), friends had been warning Barghouti that his turn would come soon. Their cautions, however, fell on deaf ears.

Barghouti, after all, was no ordinary activist. Rather, he was the leading figure behind the day-to-day activities of the 19-month old Al-Aqsa Intifada in the West Bank. He did not abide by strict security measures. Invariably dressed in jeans and a leather jacket, he was visible on the streets in Ramallah, often leading demonstrations against the Israeli occupation. His role was also vital in rallying Fatah youth and assuring national unity by communicating with representatives of other Palestinian factions.

Barghouti also acted as a spokesman for the Palestinian uprising, He gave interviews to satellite channels from his house, from his office and even while taking part in demonstrations.

According to his close associates, he personified the Fatah of the camps and the prisons, as opposed to the style adopted by the top Fatah leaders surrounding President Yasser Arafat. He served six years in prison for membership in Arafat's Fatah faction. Deported in 1987, he returned seven years later under the conditions of an interim Palestinian-Israeli peace deal. Barghouti used to be a supporter of peace talks, but after 10 years with no Palestinian state in site, and especially after September 2000, Barghouti came to personify the current Intifada.

He was arrested at a Ramallah house where he had been hiding since Israel began its invasion of the West Bank nearly three weeks ago.

Israel radio reported that its military had received intelligence that Barghouti was hiding in the house of Fatah official Ziad Abu Ain in northern Ramallah. Israeli forces sent a unit of reserve soldiers to surround the house but Barghouti addressed the soldiers in Hebrew. "I know you've come for me," he told them. But he refused to come out. The army then sent an "elite" unit, and Barghouti came out without a fight.

In many ways, his arrest is a major security coup for Israel. Still, his wife Fadwa asserted in a telephone interview with Al-Ahram Weekly that "there are a thousand more Marwan Barghoutis who will take over."

Fadwa told the Weekly that the arrest took place while Barghouti was moving from one house to a more secure place. Fighting back her tears, she said that her husband was about to leave the house as he felt that his place of hiding had been discovered.

"He kept moving from one place to another both inside and outside Ramallah," she said. "But when the curfew was lifted for a few hours, he wanted to change his place after meeting one of his colleagues. But Israeli forces were either after his colleague or else they got him by monitoring his cellular phone."

Fadwa confirmed reports that her husband was severely beaten by Israeli forces during his arrest.

At one time, Barghouti was referred to in the Israeli press as the leader of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Fatah's military wing which emerged after the Intifada broke out. But Barghouti never acknowledged such a link, and nor does his wife. "This is part of the Israeli allegations against Barghouti," Fadwa said.

Israeli newspapers also talked of Barghouti as Arafat's successor.

Fadwa said that the Israeli army treated her husband according to a new law, which allows authorities to detain suspects for 18 days without charges and bar them from seeing their lawyers.

"A committee of attorneys will be set up to defend Barghouti in front of the Israeli courts. I have received offers from between 100 and 150 volunteers belonging to different legal centres such as the Justice Centre in Israel, the Law Centre, members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Arab members in the Israeli Knesset and other organisations, all of whom have volunteered to defend my husband," Fadwa said.

ARMED AND DANGEROUS: Israeli soldiers (their faces obscured by the occupation forces) arrest West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, pictured right at a rally (photos AFP)

Text of interview with Barghouti in October 2000

One month after the beginning of the Intifada, how do you see its future?

It is clear the Intifada has scored a number of results on various fronts the political, Arab, regional and international. I think the Intifada has fulfilled many Palestinian aspirations during this critical stage. Moreover, the current Arab nation's show of solidarity granted the Intifada more support and power.

Now, with the Intifada starting its second month, the Palestinians are adamant to continue the struggle despite the barbaric escalation by Israel.

They [the Israelis] are now targeting all that is Palestinian, as seen in the siege imposed on Palestinian areas, the prevention of 150,000 Palestinians from going to work, in addition to security, economic and political measures.

What are the Intifada's achievements on the ground?

Internally; first, it established a national unity we have not seen for years. Second, it succeeded in bringing out the full potential of the Palestinian people, as well as threatening the actual existence of the occupation. Third, it turned the lives of Israeli settlers into hell. They are stuck in their places, incapable of roaming around as they used to on ring roads they built exclusively for their use, or in Palestinian areas.

On the other hand, the Intifada has also had a strong impact on the Arab level. The Intifada brought back the Arab summit, which was a crucial event that gave support and solidarity to the uprising through its political and financial decisions. However, we are still looking forward to the actual fulfilment of the resolutions the Arab summit agreed on to confront the Israeli aggression against our people.

Nonetheless, the Intifada has mobilised the popular Arab masses in a way we have not witnessed for years. It also brought decisions from international organisations in favour of the Palestinian struggle.

Most importantly, the Intifada proved to Israel that we are not slaves to the negotiating table. We have other options on the ground like continuing our struggle. We can make use of all our potential to reach out for our rights.

Yet, I want to reiterate we are not against peace or political action. But it is high time these talks focus on a time schedule for an end to the occupation, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from all Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 and the implementation of Security Council resolutions related to the plight of four million refugees.

The Intifada has also broken the US monopoly on the peace talks. The US sponsorship of the negotiations is not selling any more among Palestinians and we are now calling for international, Russian, European, UN and Egyptian participation in case of future talks.

So, can we say that the Intifada may act as a springboard to a political settlement through peace talks?

The Intifada has established a new basis for any future Palestinian-Israeli talks. We can negotiate, but we have to continue our action on the ground -- the Intifada.

From now on, we will never sit around the negotiating table to talk about halting the Intifada. The uprising will continue along with the political and diplomatic action; they will go side by side.

The Israelis are negotiating on one hand and building their settlements and creating new facts on the ground on the other. Those times are over. Palestinians will never, ever go back to this stage again.

Do you think the Palestinian anger on the streets is entirely due to Sharon's visit to Al-Aqsa?

Sharon's visit was only the straw that broke the camel's back. The Palestinians had waited for long for the talks to have positive results and they have signed a long series of peace agreements. But these agreements did not translate into real changes on the ground. They were not even respected.

There was a growing feeling of disappointment among the Palestinians because of the vast expansion in the building of illegal Jewish settlements and the continued detention of more than 2,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails.

The Israeli offer in Camp David did not mean more than the redeployment of the Israeli occupation forces in our occupied territories. But, when they came to the holiest of all issues -- not only to the Palestinians, but to the Arabs and Muslims of the world as well -- which is Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the Palestinians stood together with the Arabs everywhere against the Israeli brutality.

Fatah announced the establishment of its own militia. What does this mean and what will its goals be?

We announced that a group of armed members of Fatah expressed their readiness to act as a militia to defend Palestinian Authority areas, as well as Palestinian people. However, those are not new elements, they are already part of Fatah. It is the Israeli media that exaggerates their number and armament capabilities.

Palestinian people have no more weapons than what could be found in only one Israeli settlement inside Palestinian areas.

What about coordination between Fatah and the rest of the Palestinian factions?

There are around 13 Palestinian factions and political parties representing all religious, democratic and national trends who meet on a periodical basis. They talk together and lay out the strategy of the Intifada. These sorts of meetings had never taken place before.

What about Palestinians in the diaspora?

Palestinians in the diaspora are part of this war. They are our partners in the Intifada through their camps in Lebanon and elsewhere. Even those present in Europe, Latin America and the United States expressed solidarity with and support of our sacred Intifada.

The US is exerting great pressure on Arafat to bring the Intifada to a halt as a condition to resume peace talks. What do you expect the outcome will be?

Ever since the eruption of the Intifada, the US administration has intensified its pressure on Arafat to abort it. It would have been more appropriate to divert their pressure to the occupier, who uses tanks, helicopters and missiles against civilians, killing 160 Palestinians in less than a month and leaving around 9,000 injured, 1,500 of whom are fully handicapped.

The US lost its role as a fair sponsor of the peace process, they are totally biased to Israel. Yet, the Intifada did not bow to these sorts of pressures. The Intifada is our responsibility before our people and before the Arab nation. It will continue to fulfil our targets in freedom, sovereignty and independence.

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