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Robben Island: Springboard for Mid-East peace?

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Marwaan Barghouti: Courtesy Al-Ahram
Marwaan Barghouti:
Courtesy Al-Ahram

SINCE the Arab Spring, the Middle-East and North Africa have experienced tectonic political shifts. From Tunis to Sana people lost their fear and gathered in mass protest to shake off the rule of their long-standing despots.

Tunisia’s Ben Ali left in a hurry for Saudi Arabia, his plane loaded with gold bars. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down. Bashar al-Asad turned his guns upon the Syrian people.

Libya’s Muammar Gadaffi was bombed by NATO and murdered by rebels, and after a protracted stand-off, Yemen’s Abdullah Salih left office. However, in Bahrain Prince Hamad clung to power with the help of Saudi Arabia.

To say that the North African-Levant axis will never be the same is historical understatement. Every nation in it has felt the aftershocks of the Arab Spring. And whilst countries like Tunisia are working through their challenges, others such as Egypt are not doing well.

Neighbouring countries have also been drawn in. Due to the Syrian crisis, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have had to deal with the Middle East’s worst refugee crisis since the Mongol hordes.

On the political front, Iran has supported the Asad regime, ironically the only Syrian leadership the modern west has known. Beset by sectarian violence, Iraq’s woes have boiled over into Syria and Syria has spilt over into Lebanon.

It’s no wonder that Israel – the bête noire of the Arab world – has kept quiet in the eye of the storm. Instead of bombing Tehran as it has wished, the Israeli air-force has only ventured from its bases to bomb Syrian convoys.

But in spite of a low profile, Israel has been on edge. Disquiet about the future of the Camp David Accords and the security of its longest border with Egypt might have been assuaged by the military taking charge – yet, given the current volatility of Egypt – not much is guaranteed.

The Palestinian question has also been affected. Hamas’ condemnation of the Syrian regime has forced it to relocate its headquarters from Damascus to Doha, costing it funding and support from the Persian nexus.

On the ground in the West Bank and Gaza, there has been frustration. Talks about the revival of the peace process have only meant more illegal settlement building, and further land dispossession. The release of 26 Palestinian political prisoners last week (as part of the peace deal) was blighted by 20 more detentions, including three members of parliament.

It is against this background that South Africa has played a significant role in the fate of Palestine’s sovereign future.

The recent launching of the “Free Marwaan Barghouti and Other Palestinian Prisoners” campaign at Robben Island draws much from the anti-apartheid movement that coalesced around the figure of Nelson Mandela.

Organisers believe that with the endorsement of Ahmed Kathrada and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, publicity can be generated about the plight of Palestinian political prisoners. Since 1967, just over 800,000 Palestinians have been detained on political grounds, their conditions of incarceration violating international law.

The choice of the 54 year old Barghouti as the figurehead of the campaign to free the current 5, 000 Palestinian political detainees is a predictable one. He is, by far, the most influential and widely known Palestinian political prisoner today.

A charismatic figure of the 1987 and 2000 intifadahs, Barghouti joined Fatah (the resistance movement founded by Yasser ‘Arafat in 1965) when he was 15 years old. He has spent 20 years of his life in Israeli jails, and since 2004 has been serving five life sentences plus 40 years for his alleged role in suicide bombings and the killings of Israelis.

A key Fatah figure, Barghouti was an outspoken advocate of the 1993 Oslo Accords determining an independent Palestinian state, and according to journalist Gideon Levy as a fluent Hebrew speaker, once had the telephone numbers of half the Israeli Knesset.

His disillusionment was fostered by Israeli violation of the Accords when settlement building (meant to have been frozen) was intensified. Like ‘Arafat, Barghouti felt that Oslo died with the assassination of Israeli leader, Yitzhak Rabin, in November 1995.

In 1996 Barghouti openly challenged Fatah leadership on issues of corruption and nepotism. But it was as leader of Tanzim, Fatah’s military wing, that Barghouti gained notoriety amongst Israelis.

He was arrested in 2002 after he was abducted from the West Bank (a violation of the Geneva Convention) and tried in Israel (another violation). Barghouti refused to defend himself. Without a defence counsel he was acquitted on 21 charges, but found guilty of three.

For many Israelis, Barghouti is a terrorist who should stay behind bars forever. Human Rights activists argue that if Barghouti, a resistance leader, is guilty of murder then for the law not to be an ass, Israeli leaders should face exactly the same charges.

They point out that if justice in Israel were to be equitably applied then Ariel Sharon should have been in prison for the Qibya massacre, and Menachem Begin should have been tried for the murder of 91 people in the King David Hotel blast.

Records show that Barghouti has only called for military aggression against military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. He has denounced the targeting of civilians inside Israel “our future neighbour” but has reserved the right to resist occupation (allowed by international law).

In 2006 Barghouti was the leading hand in the Prisoner’s Document, an 18-point manifesto agreed to by all Palestinian factions calling for – amongst other things – a return to the 1967 borders.

Ahmed Kathrada, who served 26 years in apartheid jails himself, is adamant that the unconditional release of political prisoners is the most powerful message an enemy of yesterday can give to its future partners in peace.

Addressing guests at the launch on Robben Island, Kathrada said that humanity had a “sacred duty” to campaign for the release of Marwan Barghouti and all Palestinian prisoners as an essential step towards stability and freedom in the region.

And for those actively seeking a peaceful and lasting solution to the Middle East’s biggest crisis in a sea of popular uprisings, there is a feeling that they may just have the man in Marwan Barghouti, currently the only credible unifying force in the Palestinian house.

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