International Herald Tribune – 24 September 2002
Back in January when Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank’s Fatah leader, was still a free man, he penned a commentary in The Washington Post (IHT, Jan 18) which rather exaggerated the likelihood of his death. Warning that he would probably pay with his life for his advocacy of the Palestinian right to resist Israeli occupation, he concluded: “So let my position be clear in order that my death not be lightly dismissed by the world as just one more statistic in Israel’s war on terrorism.”
But Barghouti is not resting in a Palestinian cemetery, another victim of targeted assassination. Instead he is on trial, surrounded by the world’s media, charged with terrorism offenses. He is unique among Palestinian resistance leaders in being given months in which to make his case in the three languages he has mastered – Arabic, Hebrew and English – to his target audiences: the Palestinian people, the Israeli left and world opinion.
As Israel reoccupies the West Bank, condemning the Palestinian Authority and Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement to terminal irrelevance, Barghouti can sit out the intifada in an Israeli prison cell. There is now scant chance of his being assassinated by Israel. Meanwhile, his stock among Palestinians is rising sharply. According to opinion polls, since his arrest in April he has leapfrogged such traditionally popular figures as the Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin to become the most serious challenger to Arafat.
There is something a little unsettling about the coincidence of interests between Israel and its archfoe. Israel expects to prove that Barghouti and Arafat are deeply implicated in terrorism, but is that all it has to gain? Why risk a public trial of one of the most articulate opponents of the occupation when the case against Arafat could be made in other ways? Why create Palestine’s Nelson Mandela?
While a few souls on the wrecked streets of Ramallah are murmuring about Israel “polishing up” Barghouti’s image, most seem confident that what we see is what we are really getting.
Although Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has set his heart on destroying the Palestinian Authority and, it is widely assumed, any national Palestinian leadership, he is only one voice, and probably not the most important one, in the Israeli security establishment. When it comes to Israel’s war on terror, the chief of the armed forces, Moshe Yaalon, and the head of the Shin Bet security service, Avi Dichter, have at least as much control over the levers of power.
When Sharon leaves the scene – and with a severe budget crisis looming, that may be only months away – Israel’s army and intelligence services will still need a tenable policy for the Palestinian territories. Barghouti, on their reckoning, may be the key.
Leaks from the army and Shin Bet suggest they think that nothing much will change until Arafat is dead. At that point, it is feared, the Palestinians will be plunged into a bitter civil war. As things currently stand, the victors would probably be Hamas and Islamic Jihad, precisely the groups blamed for the worst attacks on Israel.
The judgment by Israel’s intelligence services is likely to be that they quickly need to engineer the emergence of a popular, pragmatic and non-Islamist Palestinian strongman to take charge of the West Bank and Gaza. The harder part is finding one acceptable to the Palestinian population. Barghouti could fit the bill. He is not tainted by corruption or by suspicions of collaboration with Israel or America. Israel has been reluctant to kill Barghouti, even though it officially deems him one of the Palestinians’ most dangerous militants. During the April invasion of the West Bank it was well known that Barghouti, fearful for his life, had gone into hiding. But when Israel tracked him down it chose to move deep into the West Bank to arrest him rather than launch an assassination strike from the air. Why did it risk the lives of soldiers on a daring mission if it could more easily have hit him from the air?
Instead of a military court, where reporting restrictions would have been imposed, Barghouti has been given a civilian trial in which he or his lawyers will be able to portray him as the real leader of Palestinian resistance to the occupation. In the eyes of the Palestinian people, he will end the trial an imprisoned hero.