The Barghouti brothers: Palestinian Arab siblings sharing similar goals but diverging on tactics
By Henry Bucher, Associate Professor Emeritus of Humanities, Austin College
Aug 15, 2017
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Dr. Henry Bucher
Marwan Barghouti was born near Ramallah in 1959, eight years before Israel occupied the West Bank in the 1967 war. Omar Barghouti was born in Qatar in 1964, moved to Egypt, and in 1993 moved to Israel and married a Palestinian Arab citizen of Israel. Marwan was disillusioned by the “peace process” and became a leader in both the First and Second Intifadah uprisings, and was arrested for terrorism. Brother Omar, opting for a political/economic approach, co-founded the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS) movement on July 9, 2005, with a coalition of 170 Palestinian civil society groups calling on “people of conscience” around the world to uphold international law with regard to Palestinian rights.

Marwan was a supporter of the “peace process,” but had doubts about a two-state solution. Omar is supportive of a unitary, secular, democratic state for all citizens. Did he arrive at this position before or after his work at Columbia University and his PhD in 2009 from Tel Aviv University?

From an Israeli prison, where he learned Hebrew, Marwan called for a Third Intifada and recently led a highly publicized hunger strike among 1500 political prisoners. He smuggled his opinion piece to the New York Times, which printed it (April 16, 2016). Jonathan Cook, a British journalist living in Nazareth, calls this the “Battle of the Empty Stomach” and the “Prison Intifadah.” Marwan believes that violence should be limited to “Palestinian territories” and he condemns attacks on civilians inside Israel. Many of his followers of many faiths, inside and outside of the Middle East, refer to him as the “Palestinian Nelson Mandela” drawing on several parallels: on Mandela’s turn to violence under pre-1994 apartheid South Africa after non-violence failed; and on his long prison sentence, during which he learned Afrikaans.

Omar Barghouti opted for the Mahatma Gandhi approach: satyagraha non-violent “truth force”, which he used in South Africa. Dr. Martin Luther King adopted this approach. In a situation of clear asymmetry of power, Israel can and has used superior force to minimize resistance. But economic and political pressures on Israel, especially with global support, has become more of a threat to Israel’s Likud government than violence. At its birth in 2005, BDS was mocked by Benyamin Netanyahu as standing for “bigotry, dishonesty and shame.” However, in twelve years, the Israeli right has taken BDS much more seriously than violent protests, in part due to its success. In 2015, some in Israel called BDS a “strategic threat” and 25 million dollars annually has been designated to combat it. Some Jewish groups support BDS.

The core of BDS since its inception was to boycott, divest from, and/or sanction companies that profit from Israel’s 1967 illegal occupation of the West Bank. The global boycott of Hewlett Packard is one example of BDS’ success. Israel and its backers in the USA have responded by describing BDS’s goal as the destruction of Israel, calling the movement Judeo-phobic/anti-Semitic.  Indeed, the US Congress will possibly pass bills (Senate 720 / House Res. 1697) which would criminalize (fine and/or imprisonment) advocacy of boycotts against Israeli West Bank settlements.

One would naturally ask whether Marwan’s approach from prison, or Omar’s non-violent strategy will be more affective from the perspective of Palestinians and those non-Palestinians in the Middle East and the world (especially in the USA) who hope for a viable peace? So far, Omar Barghouti’s approach seems to work better; but the long march to freedom combining the work of both brothers may be needed to forge a lasting peace.