Jerusalem — In October, supporters of Marwan Barghouti, perhaps the most prominent of the Palestinian militants currently in Israel’s prisons, held a high-profile demonstration in a unique venue more than 4,000 miles away from Israel.
The demonstration, in which they called for Barghouti’s release, was staged off the coast of South Africa, on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison for plotting violence against the apartheid regime then ruling his country.
It was a choice that underscored the belief of Barghouti’s supporters that he is a man who, like Mandela, can use the currency of his long time in prison to achieve their goal of a Palestinian state.
After Mandela’s death December 5, Barghouti himself rushed to reinforce this image, saying in a letter written from prison that he reminds himself daily of Mandela’s struggle, “and all sacrifices become bearable by the sole prospect that one day the Palestinian people will also be able to enjoy freedom, return and independence, and this land will finally enjoy peace.”
Many Israelis dismiss the notion of Barghouti as a Palestinian Mandela. And they reject in particular the idea that the way in which Mandela reluctantly turned to violence shares anything in common with Barghouti’s actions. There are, however, some prominent Israelis who say the analogy could work.
“From the point of view of uniting the Palestinians and leading them to real peace, Barghouti is very important,” Alon Liel, a former director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, told the Forward.
Like Mandela, Barghouti, a member of the secular Palestinian faction Fatah, does seem to enjoy a status in prison that transcends the deep divisions that plague Palestinian society. Palestinians consistently select him in polls as their first choice for president. Even Hamas, the Islamist faction in bitter conflict with Fatah, acknowledged his status when it sought, unsuccessfully, to convince Israel to include Barghouti in the group of 1,027 prisoners it freed in 2011 in exchange for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
“Most Palestinians believe that Marwan Barghouti’s positions, work and role in supporting Palestine are similar to that of Mandela’s [in South Africa],” said Jamil Rabah, director of the Ramallah-based polling company Near East Consulting.
On the Israeli side, while many dismiss the Mandela-Barghouti parallel as hyperbole, veteran peace activist Uri Avnery thinks that it stands up to scrutiny. “No one is the same, but I believe that Marwan Barghouti could fulfill a similar function in reconciliation [to that of Mandela],” he said.
If Avnery, founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement, is known as a dreamer, the same can’t be said of Liel, who believes he is the only Israeli who was friends with Mandela and Barghouti.
Liel, who served as Israel’s ambassador to South Africa during its transition to democracy from apartheid, told the Forward that he sees several echoes of Mandela in Barghouti. “The comparison is being created by the years in jail,” he said. “Barghouti, by spending such a long time in jail and by being 20 years younger than [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas, [is becoming] a legend in the eyes of his people.”