Subscriber OnlyOpinion

This man is the best hope for peace in the Middle East. First Israel has to release him from prison

For decades, Israeli officials complained they had no “valid interlocutor” while holding Marwan Barghouti in an Israeli jail

The image of Marwan Barghouti smiling as he raises manacled hands overhead, making the V for Victory sign in a Tel Aviv courtroom, is one of the most enduring Palestinian icons, emblazoned on banners and posters, stencilled on walls throughout occupied Palestine.

Rarely has the maxim that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter proven so true. Barghouti’s trajectory from an impoverished childhood in the West Bank to student activism, deportation during the first intifada, return to the West Bank and ebullient support for the 1993 Oslo accords, followed by disillusionment, armed struggle and prison, has mirrored the Palestinian experience.

Barghouti is often referred to as the Palestinian Mandela. Opinion polls have for 20 years indicated he would win a presidential election. He is “the single most popular Palestinian leader alive,” says the political scientist Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Research.

Twenty-two years have passed since Barghouti, who will turn 65 on June 6th, was arrested by Israeli commandos at a safe house in Ramallah.


Barghouti and the Israeli politician Meir Sheetrit formed a bond when Sheetrit was a member of the Knesset and Barghouti served in the Palestinian legislature. Later, as Israel’s minister of justice, Sheetrit sent Barghouti to trial for “terrorism”. Barghouti’s supporters say evidence was fabricated or obtained under torture. In 2004 he was sentenced to five life terms plus 40 years in prison.

Today the esplanade outside the courthouse where Barghouti was convicted has been renamed Hostage Square, to remind Israelis of 133 captives still held in Gaza. Barghouti’s fate is now linked to theirs. Although Barghouti is a member of the rival movement Fatah, Hamas demands his release in exchange for the hostages’ freedom.

Barghouti was first jailed at age 18 for opposing the Israeli occupation. He completed his secondary school diploma and learned Hebrew in prison. He later earned degrees in history, political science and international relations at Birzeit University.

In her first interview since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7th, Barghouti’s wife Fadwa, a lawyer, told The Economist’s Middle East correspondent Nicolas Pelham that “Marwan is educating himself to learn languages, to become a better person, to become a better leader.”

Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader accused of planning the October 7th atrocities, knew Barghouti in prison, where Barghouti is called “the professor” because he exhorts fellow inmates to read books which he discusses with them in weekly sessions.

US and European officials plead with prime ,inister Binyamin Netanyahu to produce a credible plan for “the day after” the war in Gaza. Washington advocates a “revitalised” Palestinian Authority (and professes to believe in a “two-state solution”. But the PA’s president Mahmoud Abbas, age 88, has cancelled all legislative and presidential elections for the past 18 years and is widely viewed as a corrupt lackey of the Israelis. Barghouti often criticised corruption in Fatah.

In 1994, Barghouti was allowed to return to the West Bank after seven years in exile. He enthusiastically embraced the Oslo accords and their promise of Palestinian statehood.

Under Oslo, the Palestine Liberation Organisation recognised Israeli sovereignty over three-quarters of British mandate Palestine. But Israel did not recognise Palestinian sovereignty over the remaining 25 per cent. When Netanyahu came to power in 1996 he began to dismantle the accords and stepped up colonisation of Palestinian territory, in league with right-wing settlers.

Sheetrit turned against Barghouti when he embraced violence. He now advocates Barghouti’s liberation. “If it depended on me, I would release him. I would pardon him,” he told the Economist. “I would give him the possibility to be the leader of the Palestinians and to establish a Palestinian state that would live in peace with Israel.”

Freeing Barghouti is not a radical proposition. The late Shimon Peres made an unkept promise to release him in 2007. In February, Serge Schmemann of the editorial board of the New York Times published an opinion piece advocating Barghouti’s liberation. Peter Beinart, a prominent Jewish-American intellectual, has done the same.

There is no guarantee that after 22 years in Israeli prisons, after tens of thousands of Palestinian deaths in Gaza and with settlers on the rampage in the West Bank, Barghouti would be able to make peace. During the second intifada (2000-2005) he called for attacks on Israeli troops and settlers in the occupied territories but claimed to oppose the killing of civilians in Israel. Israeli officials accuse him of founding the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, which carried out suicide bombings inside Israel.

Israel now holds about 8,000 Palestinian prisoners, of whom more than 3,000 were arrested after October 7th. Prison conditions have worsened under Itamar Ben Gvir, Israel’s extreme right-wing minister of national security. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported last month that Barghouti had filed a petition for “inhumane treatment”, saying that he is deprived of food, forced to sleep on the floor and has been “beaten vigorously and frequently by the guards while being handcuffed, humiliated, cursed and dragged naked on the floor in the presence of other prisoners”.

The Palestinian Commission for Detainees says 13 Palestinian prisoners have died inexplicably in six months. Prison visits have been stopped since October 7th. Fadwa Barghouti is torn between hope that her husband may be released and fear that he will die in prison.

Barghouti’s liberation would signify a gamble that the long dead “peace process” could be resuscitated. But Netanyahu and his far-right allies prefer a forever war in Gaza. The reckless, illegal bombing of the Iranian embassy in Damascus on April 1st indicates they are spoiling for a war with Iran. This week, fears of an all-out war with Iran diverted attention from the horrendous death toll and looming famine in Gaza.

Both sides have suffered immeasurably from a dearth of wise leadership. For decades, Israeli officials complained they had no “valid interlocutor” while doing their utmost to prevent the emergence of strong Palestinian leaders. Marwan Barghouti represents the best hope of a negotiated settlement ending in the peaceful coexistence of two states. It is a tragedy for both peoples that Netanyahu is unlikely to free him.