It has been a month since Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas called for presidential and legislative elections in Palestine for the first time in 15 years.
The announcement was made just days before US President Joe Biden was sworn into office and was seen by observers as a PR move signalling the Palestinian president’s relevance and readiness to engage in democratic reforms.
But the tepid conversations that followed reflected the disillusionment of Palestinians in any elections held under the Israeli occupation and the complicated mechanisms of partial self-autonomy, a reality that set the stage for inter-Palestinian divisions and conflict between the two major factions, Fatah and Hamas, after the last elections in 2006.
However, rumours that Marwan Al-Barghouti, a Palestinian leader serving five life sentences in Israeli prison, is mulling over standing for the presidency has revived interest in the elections. The 61-year-old has spent the past 19 years in prison – a third of his life – where his public profile has acquired a legendary status as he has continued to be politically engaged from behind bars.
A former member of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), perceived leader of Fatah’s armed wing in the West Bank, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the second Intifada and an elected member of Fatah’s Central Committee, Al-Barghouti was arrested by the Israeli occupation forces in 2002 and sentenced to five life terms and 40 years in prison in 2004.
While no statement has been issued from his office or through his wife Fadwa revealing his intentions, sources close to Al-Barghouti have confirmed his decision to seek office.
According to senior Fatah official Hatem Abdel-Qader, Al-Barghouti is planning to run for Palestinian president from an Israeli prison.
Abdel-Qader, who is close to Al-Barghouti and communicates with him through his lawyer, said that his nomination had the support of many in both the ruling Fatah faction and among the Palestinian public.
He cited Al-Barghouti’s soaring popularity in recent opinion polls, which have placed him ahead of other Palestinian leaders.
In a December 2020 poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, 61 per cent of Palestinians said they would vote for Al-Barghouti if he ran for president against Hamas leader Ismail Haniyyah, while 37 per cent said they would vote for the latter. If an election saw competition between Abbas and Haniyyah however, the former would get 43 per cent while the latter would get 50 per cent of the vote.
At 85 and in ill health, Abbas is in his 16th year of his four-year term in office since 2005, which expired in 2009. Both his term and the PA body he chairs were presented as temporary and transitional until the two-state solution was realised and a Palestinian state was born out of the Oslo Peace Process that produced the roadmap.
But the 2006 general elections, which saw a win for the Islamic resistance group Hamas, was rejected by Abbas and his Fatah faction, as well as by Israel, the United States and international community, and it led to a power struggle between the two Palestinian factions and Hamas’s eventual seizure of Gaza in 2007.
The inter-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s illegal settlement expansion in the Occupied Territories that prevailed in the following years left no room for elections or for progress in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which stalled and finally pushed the Oslo Process to oblivion.
Abbas signed a decree on 15 January setting the Palestinian legislative elections for 22 May and a presidential vote for 31 July.
According to Abdel-Qader, Al-Barghouti has no intention of running in the May legislative elections, which means that if he does not contest the presidential vote, he will not be part of the elections at all.
However, all the odds of the complex reality of the Palestinian question are against Al-Barghouti’s bid. They begin with Abbas’s expected insistence to run again, in which case Al-Barghouti, a Fatah loyalist, will not compete against him. On the logistical level, as a prisoner of Israel he cannot stand as a candidate without Israel’s approval, which is unlikely.
Al-Barghouti was born in the West Bank village of Kobar in 1959. He joined Fatah at the age of 15 and was arrested by the Israelis for the first time in 1976 when he was 17. In 1978, he was detained for five years for joining a militant group, a jail sentence that helped him become fluent in Hebrew.
In 1987, Israel accused him of incitement during the first Intifada, and he was exiled to Jordan for seven years. Upon his return in 1994, he resumed political activity in Fatah’s ranks and was elected a member of its revolutionary council and then its West Bank secretary.
In 1996, he was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council. However, having engaged in aspects of the Peace Process, Al-Barghouti became disillusioned and shifted his activism to the second Intifada.
After having failed to assassinate him, Israel arrested Al-Barghouti in 2002 and accused him of founding and leading the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a coalition of armed resistance groups in the West Bank, and of two counts of murder. He was interrogated and tortured for 100 days, followed by 1,000 days of solitary confinement and was sentenced to five life terms and 40 years in 2004.
He continued to be politically engaged, and in 2006 released the Prisoners Document for National Conciliation, which was signed by all the Palestinian factions, paving the way for the 2007 Mecca Agreement between Fatah and Hamas to end the confrontation.
In 2009, Al-Barghouti obtained a PhD in political science and continued as an elected member of Fatah’s Central Committee.
In 2017, he led a 42-day “freedom and dignity” hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, with the participation of 1,500 prisoners, the largest in Palestinian history.
Ironically, the deadlocked Palestinian scene, exacerbated by the 2020 peace agreements between Israel and the Gulf Arab states, the former US administration of Donald Trump snubbing Abbas and its recognition in 2017 of contested Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, is full of hope that the imprisoned Al-Barghouti can be a presidential candidate.
Hussein Al-Sheikh, a Palestinian official on Fatah’s Central Committee, reportedly visited Al-Barhgouti on 11 February to dissuade him from the bid and to invite him instead to run for the party’s electoral list in the May legislative elections.
The news triggered a number of Palestinian public figures and intellectuals, including Elias Khoury, Michel Kilo and Fatah officials, to issue a widely circulated statement on 20 February in solidarity with Al-Barghouti.
“For a long time, the Palestinians have missed having a reference leadership,” the statement said, proclaiming that the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) had been marginalised, and the Fatah faction had become a ruling party, or “the president’s party”.
Meanwhile, the president, a reference to Abbas, had assumed all executive, legislative and judicial powers.
“Palestine today needs a moral and political Intifada,” in order to revive the liberation movement and resist the Israeli occupation. But real change, said the statement, could only begin through a political shock from the leadership itself.
“The figure of Al-Barghouti, who has languished in Israeli prisons for 18 years, possesses the suitable personal qualities required of a leader,” the statement said. “It is our hope that he runs in the presidential elections.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly