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Palestinians Take Hope from Robben Island

"This gives us hope that the same story of ending apartheid in South Africa will also happen in Palestine - that the occupation will end."

Life prisoner Marwan Barghouthi has become the face of the call for freedom,Mail & Guardian / AFP

By Fatima Asmal
Mail & Guardian (South Africa)
October 25, 2013

The wife of Marwan Barghouthi, a prominent -Palestinian political -figure, says she is hopeful that an international campaign calling for his release, which will be launched in South Africa this weekend, will bear fruit. But the Israeli embassy in South Africa has questioned the term "political prisoner", saying those imprisoned in Israel have been convicted in court of offences related to terror activities.

The international campaign for the release of Marwan Barghouthi and all Palestinian political prisoners will be launched by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation and the Palestine-based release campaign on Robben Island on Sunday October 27.

Barghouthi was arrested on charges of murder and attempted murder in 2002, and sentenced to five life sentences and 40 years in prison in 2004.  Throughout his trial, he refused to recognise the legitimacy of the Israeli court or to defend himself.

Sunday's launch, during which a declaration will be signed in the cell famously occupied by former South African President Nelson Mandela, will be attended by Barghouthi's wife, Fadwa, as well as Issa Qaraqe, the Palestinian minister of detainees and ex-detainees, several prominent South African politicians and representatives of various human rights organisations.  An international high-level committee in support of the campaign, comprising, among others, five Nobel peace prize laureates, will be announced on the day.

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian on Skype, Fadwa Barghouthi said the fact that the campaign was being launched on Robben Island would send a clear message to the world. "We are proud, first, that it will be launched in a place which witnessed humanitarian struggle, which is an important symbol for freedom fighters around the world. This gives us hope that the same story of ending apartheid in South Africa will also happen in Palestine - that the occupation will end," she said.

"The fact that this is happening in South Africa reconfirms the fact that the Palestinian struggle is part of an international struggle against oppression and racism around the world.

"Having big names like Ahmed Kathrada supporting us sends an important message to Palestinian prisoners and their families that they are freedom fighters, just like Kathrada and Nelson Mandela."

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Apartheid struggle stalwart Kathrada said the issue of Palestinian prisoners was very close to his heart.

"I believe, after 26 years of imprisonment, I came out stronger in my belief in the indestructibility of our struggle," he said. "Being aware of the similarities between our struggles, I believe a concerted international campaign may not have immediate results, but it will be the foundation of a worldwide campaign to reach out, not only to sympathetic countries, but more especially to civil societies in as many countries as possible.

"Our Palestinian comrades were excited about [the venue]. For one thing, Robben Island represents the triumph of the forces of good over evil. It was a former Robben Islander [Mandela] who walked ... from prison to Parliament, to president."

The Inter-Parliamentary Union, in a resolution adopted unanimously on October 19 2011, stated that Barghouthi's arrest and transfer to Israeli territory was "in violation of international law" and reiterated its call for "his immediate release".

Similarly, the European Parliament called for "the immediate release of the imprisoned members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, including Marwan Barghouthi".

According to a report published by Addameer, a Jerusalem-based prisoner support and human rights organisation, "over the past 45 years, more than 800 000 Palestinians have been detained under Israeli military orders in the occupied Palestinian territory, which constitutes about 20% of the total Palestinian population".

The report also highlighted issues such as overcrowded and unhygienic prison conditions and medical neglect of Palestinians.

"As of April 1 2013, there were 4 900 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails, including 168 administrative detainees, 236 children, 14 female prisoners, and 14 Palestinian Legislative Council members," it said.  Administrative detention is a procedure that allows the military to hold prisoners indefinitely on secret information without charging them or allowing them to stand trial.

But Michael Freeman, the deputy head of mission of the Israeli embassy in South Africa, questioned the validity of the figures.

He also said that the term "political prisoner" was misleading. "There are no political prisoners as such. The people currently in Israeli prisons are those convicted in a court system of offences related to terror activities, including murder and bombings aimed at Israeli civilians of all backgrounds and ages."

When asked what he thought about the fact that a South African organisation was spearheading the campaign for the release of Barghouthi and other Palestinians, Freeman said it was "good that South Africa has a good relationship with the Palestinians".

"We think they should use it to encourage the peace process. The only way forward is to sit down with Palestinians and arrive at a solution of two states, for two people living side by side in peace. That's our dream and hope."

Pressure mounts on security company

The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement of South Africa (BDS-SA) says it will launch a local campaign on Robben Island against the British-Danish security company G4S this weekend, alongside the campaign calling for the release of Palestinian political prisoners.

"In 2007, 4S was contracted to provide and maintain security equipment at Israeli prisons, detention facilities and torture centres," said Kwara Kekana, campaign co-ordinator for BDS-SA. "G4S also provides equipment and services to Israeli checkpoints and Israel's illegal Jewish-only settlements in the occupied Palestinian West Bank."

The company has been facing increasing criticism and pressure on the international front for its links to Israel.  Earlier this month, the Norwegian trade union Industri Energi terminated its contract with G4S as "an act of solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people".

Kekana said BDS-SA would encourage South African individuals, businesses and organisations to follow suit.  It has already approached the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and the Trauma Centre, which provides trauma counselling to victims of violence and torture to ask them to terminate their contracts with G4S.

Castro Ngobese, the national spokesperson for Numsa, said:  "We agree with their cause, and if ... G4S is working in cahoots with Israel to deny Palestinians ... [their] freedom, then nothing will stop us from cutting ties with them."

James Taylor, the chairperson of the board of the Trauma Centre, said BDS-SA's request was being taken seriously and would be tabled at the centre's board meeting next week.

Adam Mynott, the G4S group media relations officer, said: "The extent of our involvement at a prison, a police station and a small number of checkpoints on the West Bank border is the servicing of scanning equipment and other security systems."


Palestine's Mandela

         Marwan Barghouti's popularity can give new momentum to the Palestinian struggle.

By Shannon Ebrahim


October 29, 2013…

On Sunday, October 27, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation launched an international campaign from the infamous Robben Island - where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years - for the release of Marwan Barghouti and all Palestinian political prisoners.

The symbolism is powerful. Kathrada launched the "Release Mandela" campaign in 1963, just prior to his own arrest, which saw him also incarcerated on South Africa's Robben Island for 18 years. Now half a century later, as an 84-year-old veteran, he is launching yet another campaign for an iconic freedom fighter.

Barghouti's wife, Fadwa, travelled to Robben Island with the Palestinian Minister for Detainees, along with hundreds of special guests, including South African struggle veterans and five Nobel Peace Prize laureates.

Barghouti was the first member of the Palestinian Legislative Council to be arrested by Israel, and is one of the most prominent of the more than 5,000 Palestinian prisoners who remain incarcerated in Israeli jails. The European Union and the Inter-Parliamentary Union have called for his release.

Barghouti's struggle

Huddled in the back of a fish restaurant in the Gaza Strip in 2001, a few African National Congress (ANC) members of parliament and I sat whispering with Marwan Barghouti. We knew he was number one on Israel's hit list, but little did we know that within nine months he would be kidnapped by Israeli forces, interrogated and tortured for 100 days, put in solitary confinement for 1,000 days, and, more than 11 years later, become known as "the Palestinian Mandela".

In an interview Barghouti gave to Al-Monitor in May 2013, he described how the Israelis had kept him in solitary confinement for almost three years in a tiny cell infested with cockroaches and rats. His windowless cell had denied him aeration or direct sunlight, with dirt falling from the ceiling. He was only allowed one hour of exercise a day while handcuffed. He proved unbreakable after three years.

Barghouti's defiance of the largest military power in the Middle East was inspiring, reminiscent of the fiery determination of the ANC leaders in South Africa twenty years earlier. At the time we met him he was the Secretary General of Fatah, the leader of Fatah's armed branch Tanzim, and had been the brains behind the first and second intifada. His revolutionary spirit was electric.

He knew very well that sooner or later Mossad would catch up with him, despite his best efforts at being a black pimpernel. In one of a number of attempts to assassinate Barghouti in 2001, the Israeli military ended up killing his bodyguard in a targeted strike. In April 2002, Israeli forces hid in the back of an ambulance and ambushed the house he was staying in, grabbing him. He was later charged for his activities under Tanzim and given five life sentences.

But as with most exceptional freedom fighters elsewhere, his message and persona grew in prison. His popularity has surpassed that of all Palestinian leaders - both in Hamas and Fatah  -  and he is being hailed by Palestinians as a unifying figure who could lead his people to freedom.

His propensity to unite Fatah and Hamas into one powerful liberation movement insisting on a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders makes him a dangerous threat to Israel's political establishment. Barghouti's message is so powerful that Hamas has rallied behind him. When Hamas recently engaged in negotiations on a prisoner exchange with Israel in return for the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, they had put Marwan Barghouti at the top of their list. For Israel, Barghouti's release was not negotiable.

Apartheid and resistance

Palestinian unity threatens Israel's strategy - which seems to be to delay peace talks, claiming to have no peace partner, while grabbing more land through settlements. That strategy has worked so far, in that settlement building has increased three or four times over the two decades of negotiations. What is left of historic Palestine is Swiss cheese - full of holes, with little contiguous territory. Its comparison to the old South African Bantustan maps is hard to avoid. Where Palestinian villages and towns remain, they are surrounded by the massive apartheid wall, in most instances cut off from their water resources and farm land, which have been annexed by Israeli settlers.

Where Mahmoud Abbas has given in to Israeli demands, opposing all forms of armed resistance, and establishing unprecedented economic and security cooperation with the occupying authorities, Marwan Barghouti has called for an end to all forms of cooperation with the Israeli occupation. Barghouti has been against the collaboration of US-trained Palestinian security forces with Israeli forces, which he believes has guaranteed the security of growing Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Barghouti has also been scathing about the Arab Ministerial delegation to Washington in April 2013, which proposed amending the 1967 borders in return for land swaps. He considers this the Arab rulers' worst betrayal of the Palestinian cause. While the Gulf monarchies may have tried to gamble with the future of the Palestinian people, Barghouti's principled stand has found resonance on the Arab street.

The most famous Palestinian political prisoner is now calling for a third intifada - a non-violent mass uprising. Non-violent protest will deny Israel the ability to dismiss legitimate Palestinian demands as "terrorism", a strategy that has discredited the Palestinian cause for many outside observers. It will be a Palestinian version of the Arab Spring that will dominate the headlines and galvanise international public opinion.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is only too well aware of the dangers of such calls. His focus at the United Nations and in private diplomacy on Iran as a nuclear threat has deflected the world's attention from Palestinian independence, settlement building, and freeing legitimate peace partners.

If Barghouti's attempt, from prison, to inspire a non-violent protest movement captures the imagination of Palestinians, it could start a significant new chapter in the heretofore tragic history of the Palestinians' struggle for justice.

Shannon Ebrahim is a South African columnist on foreign affairs, a freelance writer, and political consultant. She has worked as the Director for International Relations for the South African Presidency, and coordinated Government policy on the Middle East and East Africa. Follow her on Twitter: @shannonfield7