Gilad Shalit Swap Brings 1,027 Palestinians, But Not Marwan Barghouti

If your flight is overbooked and the airline offers you 1,027 free tickets in return for giving up your seat, that's a pretty good deal right? Absolutely! 

If you're the Red Sox brass and the Cubs offer you 1,027 prospects in return for GM Theo Epstein you definitely take it, no? Positively!

So if you are the Palestinians and Israel offers you 1,027 political prisoners in return for Gilad Shilat, you should be ecstatic, saah (Arabic for correct)? Not exactly ...

Of course Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya – who was responsible for brokering the deal – and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas celebrated the occasion saying, "This is the day of our God. It's our God that's given us this victory," and "[we] fought and sacrificed, and you will see the results of your struggle in an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital," respectively. 

But, this prisoner exchange will likely be remembered for who is still behind bars: Palestinian political figure Marwan Barghouti – a polarizing figure with a violent past yet a man who may be the best hope at resolving the conflict.

Advocating for the release of a man accused of committing 33 attacks against Israel and convicted of 5 counts of murder is not an easy task. Yet, Barghouti has a broad spectrum of support including Hamas leadership, former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, several members of the EU parliament, and even Israeli President Shimon Peres, who promised a presidential pardon for Barghouti back in 2007. 

How could people – especially Israelis – justify releasing someone with such an abhorrent past? Largely because of a similar life story to that of Nelson Mandela, which ironically is why Israel refuses to set him free. 

Barghouti garnered such favorable recognition after Uri Avnery, a former Knesset member and an activist who was rated the 128th greatest Israeli of all-time by the online news site Ynet, declared Barghouti Palestine's Mandela.

As Avnery and others have pointed out, both men began their careers opposing segregation through peaceful non-resistance before becoming disillusioned and turning to more extreme forms of resistance. Both men quickly gained prominence and power through support of violent struggle. Barghouti gained respect as one of the main leaders of the First Intifada and a ranking member of Fatah's militia Tanzim offshoot, while Mandela became a leader of the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (spear of the nation). 

Yet it is not until both men were imprisoned that their status catapulted to that of national heroes. It is also prison, where both men changed their tune and outlook on statehood and resistance. At his 2002 trial in Israeli court, Barghouti condemned any and all attacks on civilians inside Israel. 

Similar to what happened to Mandela, Barghouti's legend, popularity, and influence has grown during incarceration. Once considered Yasser Arafat's likely successor, Barghouti is now seen by many as the only candidate who can unite both Fatah and Hamas and work with Israel to resolve the crisis.

South Africa took a gamble on Mandela, one which brought about the end of apartheid. With no end to the stalled peace process in sight, Israel should consider releasing Barghouti in hopes that he can bring about a tenable two-state solution and an end to the more than half a century of violence.

If the 'terrorist' Mandela could bring South Africa back from the brink, then Barghouti – with close supervision – should be given a chance to make peace a reality in Palestine as well. Having already served 12 years of his five life sentences, let's hope it doesn't take Israeli another 18 years for his release.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons