Campaign to free Palestinian Mandela intensifies with start of terrorism trial

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JERUSALEM — A massive "Free Marwan Barghouti" billboard, with an almost cherubic likeness of the jailed Palestinian leader, spans the rubble-strewn avenue leading to a checkpoint outside El Bireh.

Tattered posters of Barghouti, pasted on shop windows and walls directly after his April 15 arrest and depicting a scruffy and tired-looking leader, still abound in Ramallah. Since his terrorism trial began on Sept. 5, massive media coverage and rumors have sparked a rejuvenation of his image. Some are calling it "Marwan-mania."

After seven months of incarceration in Jerusalem, now is a political boom-time for Fatah's West Bank secretary-general, Tanzim leader and Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade founder.

What's more, his supporters and some Israelis whisper loudly that Barghouti is being groomed by Israel for a major leadership role a la South African icon Nelson Mandela, who strode directly from his prison cell of 27 years into the president's office after his 1994 release.

Rumors that Israel is working to place Barghouti on a political pedestal, crowning him chief Palestinian martyr by means of a political trial, have until recently not held water. They may never.

Still, Israeli diplomatic sources say Barghouti has some powerful backers, including Israel's foreign minister, Shimon Peres, who privately said Barghouti is the man who should lead the Palestinians. Whether Peres' boss, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, feels the same way, is doubtful.

Barghouti activist and lawyer Khader Shkirat is both founder of the "free Barghouti campaign" and the militant's greatest cheerleader. Shkirat recently resigned from the Palestinian human rights organization to work full-time on the "Barghouti campaign" alongside powerful Orient House lawyer Jawad Boulus.

"Marwan is a popular leader. He is the leader of the Palestinian people, and enjoys all the support of the Palestinian people," said a confidant Shkirat. Furthermore, he claims, Barghouti's popularity is mushrooming on the Palestinian streets, where people constantly ask after the jailed leader's health. No event in his career has done as much to boost Barghouti's popularity as his latest stint in prison and the widely covered trial beamed across the Arab world by Al-Jazeera and other media.

"He is becoming the symbol of the entire Palestinian cause and the expression of its national desires all over the world," adds Shkirat.

The Mandela connection is a boon. Mandela, currently the leading figure in the "free Barghouti" advisory board, has told Shkirat that he will attend at least one of the trial sessions. His presence would be a public relations disaster for Israel.

Barghouti intends to represent himself for all but the Oct. 3 hearing at which the defense will ask the presiding judge, Sara Sirota, to annul the trial on the grounds that Israel has no jurisdictional authority to try a man it accuses of multiple counts of murder.

"We have not yet officially invited Mandela," says Shkirat, who met the South African in August. "But when we do we hope he comes. Regardless, even his strong moral support is sufficient."

In the meantime, word on the Palestinian street is that the "Palestinian Mandela" and his wife, Fadwa, "Palestine's Winnie," are being groomed to heed the call of the Palestinian people for a leader to one day replace Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Some in the higher Fatah echelons are almost certain Barghouti is being "polished" by Israel for a future leadership role in Palestinian politics.

Barghouti's chances of ascending the throne are colored primarily by the various hues of the intifada. Palestinians believe that due to his violent record against Israel, Barghouti has a good chance of being accepted by groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

However, running with the Mandela metaphor, Barghouti's arduous and solitary climb to power has just begun.

He is a West Bank Palestinian, and is not a returnee from exile or a refugee like a large number of the Palestinian leadership, most notably the Cairo-born Arafat.

After joining Fatah at 15, Barghouti was arrested a few years later and jailed for his involvement in the banned group. In Israeli prison, he earned his high school diploma and learned fluent Hebrew. He then attended Bir Zeit University in Nablus and helped fashion it into a cradle of Palestinian political activism.

Barghouti was arrested again and deported as he started his fourth year at the university in 1987. From Amman he continued to direct Fatah actions, both violent and peaceful. Upon his 1994 return to the territories after Israel issued general amnesty, he was elected Fatah secretary-general in the West Bank. He embraced Israeli doves in the euphoric middle years of the Oslo accords from 1994 to 1997 during his so-called "Mandela days."

Then came his disillusionment with Israel and the pace of the peace process. Eventually, the image emerged of a grass-roots leader, a diminutive Barghouti, directing "activists" and scurrying between boulders and twisted rubble in the early stages of the current war.

Unlike the confused message expressed by what some Palestinians are calling the increasingly doddering Arafat, Barghouti's message is clear, say his supporters. He advocates two states for two peoples, with the borders being the June 4, 1967 lines. Only this will bring peace, he says, nothing less.

He has kept his distance from senior Fatah members pushing a unilateral cease-fire at the Palestinian Legislative Council session in Ramallah, Palestinian sources in Fatah say.

Yet there remain certain doubts about his ability to lead, unite or be accepted even if he is released from prison.

In Israel's eyes, Barghouti's targeting of Israeli civilians will not likely be forgotten. He has never denied responsibility for the bloody acts to which he has been linked, and in a statement released in his name after the trial, he said, "My crime is not terrorism, it is demanding freedom. To that I plead guilty."

Pleading innocent to the charges against him is political suicide, for Barghouti's political estate is built on his record of fighting Israel, explains a Fatah source.

His trial for terrorism will not be quick. Israel hopes to show the world the extent of Barghouti's — and the Palestinian Authority's — innumerable links to terror.

The state has compiled voluminous evidence against him since his April 15 arrest. Israel believes it has an iron-clad case tying Barghouti to dozens of terrorist murders, attempted murders and countless other charges.

Nevertheless, Barghouti's expert lawyers, led by Boulus, are testing Israel's legal system in a search for loopholes. They have argued that under international law and the Oslo Accords to which Israel technically still adheres, the state cannot try him because he was "abducted" from semi-sovereign Area A (Ramallah). He can therefore only be tried in an international court.

"Both the trial and the defense's position are new phenomena in Israeli legal history," observes Professor Asher Maoz of Tel Aviv University's School of Law. "And Barghouti is playing a sophisticated double game, playing along as leader of the Palestinians, saying he cannot be put to trial and refusing to recognize the court's authority, while at the same time pursuing avenues to defend himself."

While both prosecutor and defendant are playing by the rules, most legal experts agree that the battle for Barghouti will be a vicious and emotional one.

Shkirat hopes that eventually the defense team will negotiate Barghouti's release through a political deal somehow orchestrated with the upper echelon of the Israeli government. Other than this, his lawyers avoid outlining their strategy for the trial, save for arguing that the court has no jurisdiction.

Barghouti's salvation, once a sentence has been meted out, can only come from an official pardon issued in consideration of the interests of the state of Israel by President Moshe Katsav.