Is Imprisoned Fatah Leader Marwan Barghouti the Mandela of the Palestinians?

Many Israelis Are Dubious of Parallels Drawn Between the Two

Speaking in Magistrate Court: Palestinian Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2002 for organizing anti-Israeli attacks during the Second Intifada in 2000.
Getty Images
Speaking in Magistrate Court: Palestinian Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2002 for organizing anti-Israeli attacks during the Second Intifada in 2000.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published December 12, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.