Can the Palestinian Mandela End Israeli Apartheid?

Like Madiba, Marwan Barghouti is leading a fight for justice and freedom — from prison.

“Symbolically, nothing represents the bitter Palestinian reality under occupation more than the thousands of political prisoners languishing in Israeli jails,” writes Marwan Bishara for Al Jazeera. “And nothing personifies the struggle for liberty more than the likes of [Marwan] Barghouti, who spent much of his adult life in an Israeli jail or in exile.”

Charged with multiple killings as well as belonging to a terrorist organization, Marwan Barghouti — leader of the First and Second Intifadas — refused to defend himself at his trial in 2002. Doing so would only legitimize the proceedings, in his eyes, which saw him convicted of five counts of murder and sentenced to as many lifetimes plus forty years in jail. To him, it was “a political show trial,” which furthermore was firmly “denounced by international observers.” Nearly twenty years later, he’s now running for the Palestinian presidency from prison.

If Barghouti’s story sounds familiar, that may be because it bears striking similarities to that of another anti-apartheid freedom fighter: South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.

Mandela was arrested alongside several of his comrades in 1962 and imprisoned for life for attempting to foment revolution. He was released twenty-seven years later. On emerging from his jail cell, with the help of the movement he had led from prison, he proceeded to institute true democracy and dismantle the racist regime that had viciously oppressed non-white South Africans since 1948 — the same year as Israel’s founding.

Over seven decades later, the West Bank is still occupied by the Israeli military government. The apartheid regime in Palestine, therefore, has existed nearly thirty miserable years longer than that in South Africa, and is further abetted by the corrupt and sclerotic Fatah party, led for 15 years by Mahmoud Abbas. Palestine is clearly in need of its own Mandela moment. Could Barghouti, alongside his young and change-hungry supporters, lead the righteous charge — winning dignity and equality for Palestinians at last?

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