Hamas demands Israel release Marwan Barghouti, a man some Palestinians see as their Nelson Mandela

JERUSALEM (AP) — He’s viewed by some Palestinians as their Nelson Mandela, and he’s a prime candidate to become their president in the future. He’s also the highest-profile prisoner held by Israel.

Now Marwan Barghouti‘s freedom is at stake in cease-fire negotiations between Hamas and Israel. Hamas leaders demanded Friday that Israel release Barghouti, a leader of the militant group’s main political rival, as part of any deal to end the fighting in Gaza.

The demand brings new attention to Barghouti, who plays a central role in Palestinian politics even after spending more than two decades behind bars. His release could lay the groundwork for his eventual election to national office.

Hamas’ gambit to free him appears to be an attempt to rally public support for the militant group as well as a recognition of his status as a uniquely unifying Palestinian figure.

“Hamas wants to show to the Palestinian people that they are not a closed movement. They represent part of the Palestinian social community. They are trying to seem responsible,” said Qadoura Fares, who heads the Palestinian Ministry of Prisoner Affairs in the occupied West Bank and has long been involved in negotiations over prisoner releases.

Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan called for Barghouti’s release as international mediators try to push Israel and Hamas toward an agreement after nearly four months of war.

Israel is seeking the release of more than 100 hostages still held by Hamas in Gaza. Hamas is demanding an end to Israel’s devastating military offensive and the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners.

The war broke out Oct. 7, when Hamas fighters crossed into Israel, killing some 1,200 people and dragging 250 hostages back to Gaza. The Hamas attack triggered an Israeli ground and air campaign that has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians, according to local health officials, and triggered a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

Over 100 hostages were released during a weeklong truce in November. Israel estimates 136 hostages remain in captivity, though 20 have been pronounced dead. With protests calling for the hostages’ immediate release sweeping Israel, and fears that time is running out to bring them home safely, pressure is mounting on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reach a deal.

For Palestinians, the plight of their imprisoned loved ones is deeply emotional. While Israel considers “security prisoners” to be terrorists, Palestinians widely see them as heroes battling Israeli occupation. Virtually every Palestinian has a friend, relative or acquaintance who has been imprisoned.

The Israeli human rights group HaMoked says Israel is currently holding nearly 9,000 security prisoners. Hamas seeks the release of all of them. But in his remarks Friday, Hamdan mentioned only two by name — Barghouti and Ahmad Saadat.

Saadat heads a small faction that killed an Israeli Cabinet minister in 2001 and is serving a 30-year sentence for allegedly participating in attacks.

Palestinians see the 64-year-old Barghouti, a member of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party, as a natural successor to the 88-year-old Abbas, who leads the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, the self-ruled government that administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Abbas, whose forces in Gaza were overrun by Hamas in 2007, hopes to regain control of the territory after the war. But he is deeply unpopular because of corruption within the authority and because of his security coordination with the Israeli army.

Palestinians have not held elections since 2006, when Hamas won a parliamentary majority.

Fares, a Barghouti supporter, said that if Barghouti is released, he could become a consensus candidate in a round of new elections that Hamas, Fatah and other Palestinian factions could rally behind. A wartime opinion poll published in December showed Barghouti to be the most popular politician among Palestinians, ahead of both Abbas and Hamas’ leader, Ismail Haniyeh.

Israelis see Barghouti as an arch-terrorist, and convincing Israel to free him will be an uphill battle.

Barghouti, a leader in the West Bank during the second Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s, is serving five life terms for his role in several deadly attacks. During that uprising, Palestinian militants carried out deadly suicide bombings and shooting attacks targeting buses, restaurants, hotels and Israelis driving in the West Bank, eliciting crushing Israeli military reprisals.

In 2002, Barghouti was arrested on multiple counts of murder. He did not offer a defense, refusing to recognize the court’s authority. Since then, he has repeatedly thrust himself into the spotlight.

In 2021, he registered his own list for parliamentary elections that were later called off. A few years earlier, he led more than 1,500 prisoners in a 40-day hunger strike to call for better treatment in the Israeli prison system. From jail, he has continued to call for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — lands Israel seized in the 1967 war.

Barghouti was born in the West Bank village of Kobar in 1962. While studying history and politics at Bir Zeit University, he helped spearhead student protests against the Israeli occupation.

He emerged as an organizer in the first Palestinian uprising, which erupted in December 1987, but Israel eventually deported him to Jordan. He returned to the West Bank in the 1990s, as part of interim peace agreements that were meant to pave the way for a Palestinian state but got bogged down by the end of the decade when a second uprising erupted.

Barghouti was seen as political leader of the armed wing of Fatah at the time.

Israel has previously rejected calls to free him. It refused to include him in a 2011 exchange of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for a single soldier held captive in Gaza by Hamas, said Fares, who was party to the negotiations. Yehya Sinwar, the current Hamas leader in Gaza and a mastermind of the Oct. 7 attack, was freed in that exchange.

The 2011 negotiations revolved around the release of a single hostage. With the lives of over 100 hostages now hanging in the balance, there is more pressure than ever on Israel to release Palestinian prisoners. That may make conditions ripe for a deal that could simultaneously win Barghouti’s release and bolster Hamas’ standing among Palestinians.

“Hamas is more strong and more clever than ever before,” Fares said. “They understand how necessary it is for the Palestinian people to have consensus.”

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