Fakhri Barghouti: Recounting a Lifetime of Struggle
After 33 years in captivity, Fakhri Barghouti returned to his people and his family as part of the Gilad Shalit deal last month. He shared with al-Akhbar the painful memories of a lifetime of loss, struggle, hope, and defiance.
Toufic Haddad: How did you get involved in the national movement? What were the motivating factors in your life that led to this life choice?
Fakhri Barghouti: No one starts off being a national devotee. It’s not like this is something that comes pre-packaged, but is rather something that takes place slowly with the accumulation of experience as one’s individual awareness of life under occupation comes into focus.
The first thing that planted a seed in my head was the death of my brother Ribhi [Ribhi was one of the Palestinian fedayeen based in Lebanon and died in events known as the Battle of Arqoub in 1970.] At the time, he had made plans to marry a woman from our village. On the night of her sending off, we held a wedding celebration for her, because most of us in the village would not be able to attend the actual wedding, and our house was busy preparing festivities for her departure.
I was 16 at the time. Around dusk, a vegetable vendor came by the village in his truck with the bad news, but saw that a wedding was taking place. Ashamed to approach our family directly, he went instead to a relative’s house next door, and told them that our brother had been killed, and that the wedding should be stopped. There was no point in the bride going across the bridge to Jordan the next day, as her groom was dead.
To this day this experience is etched in my memory: my sister noticed that the neighbors were not acting normally, and persisted in whispering amongst themselves. She approached them and was about to ask what had happened, and they took note and approached her instead. It was then that she realized that they knew it was something to do with our family, with one of the women eventually plucking up the courage to tell her.
I can still hear her screams and cries. It was an experience that weighed heavily on our family. My father, in particular, was devastated. Of course time would move on, but he never quite recovered from this experience. I used to help him in the fields and the bursts of sadness would occasionally overcome him. The feeling was that I could not do anything to stop our family’s pain. At the time, we had yet another brother in Lebanon whose fate was unknown, and there was also talk that the Israelis would come and destroy our house because of my brother’s militant activity – factors which only added to the heaviness of our father’s heart.
This was our family’s situation, which seemed constantly unstable, and which began to develop within me. I began to feel that had it not been for the Israeli occupation and all that it did in terms of oppressing us – how they took our land, how they arrested and killed, how their policies affected old and the young – none of this would have happened. This is how I became conscious of the national issue growing up, and also how I saw it as an avenue through which I could do something about it.
I began to get involved in various nationalist activities, often related to commemorative nationalist occasions, doing what I could. At the time, I had a relative named Abu Assef [Omar Barghouti], who I grew up with and was very close to. He helped find a way for me to get to Lebanon and get some military training with one of the groups up there. It was there that I learned what I needed to, and I returned to Palestine after about a year with a little experience, and a clearer agenda for work. I began working more concertedly on the social level, opening up associations, coordinating with unions and different groups.
At one stage we decided to take it to another level, and engaged in a military operation where I was involved in a cell which killed an Israeli military intelligence officer near the village of Nabi Saleh [near Ramallah]. The army closed off the entire village, which bore the brunt of the oppression, as we hid in nearby undergrowth. But as it got dark, and because it was January and raining, we were able to escape, owing to the fact that the army could not trace our path of escape. We left and were able to return to our village.
After six months and various other developments, we were eventually arrested: Abu Assef, Abu Nour [Nael al-Barghouti] and myself. Abu Assef was given a life sentence and 48 years, while Abu Nour and I were given one life term and 17 years a piece. I was 24 years old when I was arrested [in 1978].
TH: Can you describe how your life changed? Did you think that you would remain in prison your whole life?
FB: Everything changed. It was a new life, new thinking. Daily life became preoccupied with how to survive under the new conditions that prison imposed — how to keep yourself sane and how to help others cope. We needed as political prisoners to be able to remain united and focused, and not allow for chaos to reign, especially amongst the new prisoners. You have no option but to try and remain steadfast and to preserve yourself. We did this by organizing educational sessions, setting up a physical fitness routine, and setting up a social routine to get to know the other prisoners, and hear their concerns.
There is no person who can survive in prison and believe he will be there his whole life without sustaining hope. If you lose hope, either you say good-bye to the world, and you hang yourself from the ceiling, or you go crazy. There’s no other option. For that reason it was imperative that I preserve myself, preserve my mental state, preserve my sense of balance, to ensure that I do not reach a stage of desperation. Because struggling for a cause is not something that is done in one or two days. Nor is it something that can only take place in one location.
Whatever the circumstances, if you have faith, you can continue to struggle despite the circumstances. It’s not as though when you reach prison, the struggle is over.
There is no question about it though — prison is difficult. Imagine what it is like to go without eating for twenty days, and all you have is a glass of water. That is what it is like when you are on hunger strike, as we were forced to do many times. This is one of the most difficult things for a human to do – to force himself not to eat, even though the prison administration puts food right in front of you. It is a much more difficult form of struggle than being in an active front, where you shoot or what not. This was our life, and it was much more difficult than the struggle outside. But it remained part of one struggle.
Prison in those days was particularly difficult because we had yet to win many of the most basic rights that prisoners enjoy today. We would sleep on the bare floor, without a blanket. When they brought us blankets and pillows, it was not fit for a dog. The prison was very cold and prisoners would sew together nylon bags to their blanket to try and improve their insulation. When we won the right to have mattresses, only after a prisoner’s strike — and which were, in effect, the most primitive rubber sponges — we felt as though we were being brought a full wedding double bed.
The right to smoke every cigarette in prison was only won through struggle. You need to remain steadfast. You need to preserve your dignity no matter what the cost. Because if you lose your dignity, it’s not a commodity that you can just replace. If you lose your dignity, everything is lost. So your whole existence in prison is oriented around not breaking. As much as they try to break you, you resist, and preserve your dignity and honor. Thank God, I feel, I was able to do that.
TH: Can you speak of the transformations that took place in prison throughout the long period that you remained there? How did life compare before and after the Oslo peace process?
FB: Up until around 1990, the morale of the prisoners was very high, measured in their dedication to the cause and to remaining self-consciously organized. But when Oslo came, and the leadership came from abroad, and the political situation appeared to be opening up, the prisoners stayed in prison. This had a strong impact upon us. We felt it was us, who had paid the price for the leadership to return, but we were abandoned by them.
Everyone knows in conflict situations that before any negotiations after a cease-fire takes place, the first issue addressed is the question of prisoners. It is never put on the back burner while all other issues are negotiated. What was happening contravened all known approaches to negotiations and political resolution. We understood that we were subordinated to something else, and were made to feel as though we did not have value – neither as individuals, nor as people who had families, nor as agents and representatives of political organizations that played a role in sending us on our missions.
This had a strong negative impact upon the prisoners and their interest in the organizations and the political game being played outside. At the same time, we all needed to be able to preserve ourselves and the political heritage we came from and represented. Because without a political framework as part of our existence in prison, our lives would have transformed into hell, and it would be very difficult to live. As they say, ‘Chaos does not create, but more chaos.’
We were paying already the price of sacrifice, so these events could not be allowed to pass so easily. We undertook patient work to attempt to calm down the situation amongst the prisoners, and to mitigate the reaction the accords were causing. Slowly but surely, prisoners began to accept that things were taking time. And Oslo did bring about some releases – around 4,000 prisoners. However none of those released included those who are referred to [by Israel] in negotiations as those whose “hands are stained with blood” [i.e., those who were alleged to have engaged in acts that led to injury or death].
Everyone once they are arrested wants to go home. That is your emotional reaction. But if you think with your brain, regarding what took place with Oslo, no one expected that the prisoners would be forgotten the way they were. And it wasn’t as though one or two people were forgotten. There were 10-12,000 people who were in prison around the end of the first intifada, and the majority of them were simply marginalized and ignored.
TH: Can you speak of how prison affected your family personally?
FB: I was put in prison when my eldest son [Shadi] was 11 months old, and when my second [Hadi] was in the womb of his mother. When the army came to take me, they ransacked Shadi’s crib where he was sleeping and turned over everything in the house. From the beginning the pressure was great.
The kids grew older and Hadi married and had two children of his own while I was inside. I left Shadi behind in prison. The two most difficult of times in my life were when I first met my two sons in prison after each were arrested, and they were placed in the same cell as me; the second was when I had to say good-bye, and leave Shadi behind.
I really got to know my sons as men, only after they joined me in prison, because after each became16 years old, the prison prevented them from being able to come on family visits. One morning the prison administration approached me at 7am and told me that my two sons would join me at four o’clock in the afternoon. Between those hours, all time stopped moving. Other prisoners asked me, ‘how do you feel,’ and I refused to respond, because the pain and heaviness was too great. My nerves were hyperactive, and my head was spinning. How was I going to react? What was I going to feel? I tried to control myself but I could do nothing, as the feelings overwhelmed me.
When four o’clock came, and I heard the guards begin to open the first door, it was my heart that was opening, not just the door. When they opened the second door, my nerves gave way and I collapsed losing all ability to control myself. I felt I was in a pool of water, as the sweat was dripping off of me. The other prisoners tried to calm me, but for naught. All the prisoners in our division began to cry. No one could bear the situation. It was very, very difficult. Till today, I don’t like to talk about it, because I feel it negatively affects me personally…Before that point, I had not seen either of them for the previous six years, when they had been allowed to visit me.
When it came time to leave prison, I knew I had to leave Shadi behind [Shadi is serving the eighth year of a 28 year sentence, and is alleged to have been involved in plans to capture an Israeli soldier to use in a prisoner exchange; Hadi had been released after three and a half years of detention]. It was as though matters, instead of starting over again from the beginning, were now starting from the end.
When I was about to be set free and it came time to say good-bye to him, I wanted to get it over with quickly so I could maintain a sense of balance. So I kept it short, and he walked with me the last 150 meters. I didn’t want him to walk with me, but he did. I tried to remain strong, until we got to the door that I needed to depart from. That was the moment most difficult in my life. He got down on his knees and began to kiss my feet….
When I first got into prison, I could see them occasionally on the visits they were permitted when growing up as children. Then I saw them when they were in prison with me. But, when I was about to leave I felt I was never going to see Shadi again, because I knew I would be prevented from visitation. I feared, that in truth, it might be the last time that I see him…[weeps]
Every human has his point of weakness…The essence of being human, is remaining sensitive. If one cannot feel for ones family and those closest to you, how can you feel for others? If a person allows his sense of feeling to be taken away, then you are no longer human.
TH: How did you feel when you first heard about the military operation where the resistance was able to take captive Gilad Shalit and that he had been taken alive? Did you sense your time in prison would end soon?
FB: For many years I told myself that once I got home, I knew I was out. But to live in a situation of instability pondering the fate of the Shalit deal and whether I would get out, or not – I wouldn’t put myself in that tunnel. I had done that before, but to no avail. Of course all the prisoners were talking, exchanging what they knew about who was on the list of prisoners to be freed and what not. But I would just hear it and let it pass over me. I wouldn’t say – ‘don’t talk to me about it.’ All I would say is ‘fine.’ But I wouldn’t allow myself to care about the matter until it was over.
Just before the deal was finalized, I got news that the fate of Abu Nour and myself had been determined. They [Israel] had wanted us expelled [from Palestine]. But apparently in negotiations there was a strong resolve to ensure that we be able to return to our village, thanks to the resolve of the Hamas negotiators and the Egyptians intermediaries. In truth I wasn’t sure what to believe….and since being free, I’m still not convinced that I am.
TH: The western and Israeli press focused on the person of Gilad Shalit a great deal. What do you make of the attention given to him, while no comparable attention is given to Palestinian prisoners?
FB: The Palestinian people are under occupation. It doesn’t surprise me that the media has not raised the issue of the thousands of prisoners who are in prison. They have never given us any sense of value or consideration. It was Shalit who was the one who was oppressed. He was the one paying the price. The whole world was talking about Shalit. But no people can ever be victorious as long as the value of an individual is not respected. Up until now, we are worthless to the international community. Because it is westerners who have ‘value.’
Sadly, our side shares some of the blame, because we don’t dare to raise these issues in international organizations, even in negotiations dealing with prisoners – all these issues are ignored, because we consider it something normal that people go to prison. If there was more respect for the value of the individual in our society, it would not be possible for this to take place.
The human must be elevated to the highest value. The land will remain, even if you build upon it. But the human and the changes he experiences are a million fold: those of age, those of psychology, those of body – all these take place within a limited time period, the period of one’s life on earth. So we have to learn to give more value to our people.
Despite this, the warm welcome we received upon our release was uplifting, and we truly felt its sincerity. Tears fell, smiles were beaming. All of this mixed together. You feel happy, but at the same time you want to cry. In fact on the bus that took us away from the prison, most of the prisoners were crying on their way to Ramallah. The same thing took place when we entered our village. We found the festivities and the welcome celebration was something to raise our heads about. It gave us a sense of support and will sustain us for many years. You felt that Palestine, as much as there are problems and mistakes and forgetfulness in our movement, for the majority of our people, the price is worth it.
TH: The Arab and Islamic world, together with large parts of the ‘third world,’ largely support the Palestinian cause. But the West knows little of the people here. What is your message to them?
FB: We will not be satisfied with empty talk. It is not sufficient, that the Arab and Islamic world stands in solidarity with us in words alone. The tongue does not liberate anything. And the tongue also has many twists. We want a position from the Arab states and the Arab people in general, that supports the clear, original, and historic principles of our movement as an Arab and Islamic cause, and that they undertake their responsibility in this regard.
The Arab regimes today are all preoccupied with maintaining power and destroying their oppositions – and have nothing to do with taking any positions vis-a-vis our cause, be it on a nationalist, Islamic, or moral basis. But eventually they will all be kicked out. Hopefully what they call the ‘Arab spring’ will be able to accomplish this.
As for the Western regimes – there is nothing worse. Because they know the truth, and it’s not as though they are ignorant. Look at the UK. They know what has been going on here and are the original cause of our plight. The US too, knows everything great and small about what goes on here, even better than the Palestinians themselves. But it is they who have interest in the situation remaining as it is.
Of course, to all those who speak about civilization and are for human rights, and who ask that there be an end to injustice in the world, we ask that they stand with those whose land, nationhood, and resources are stolen every day. We ask that they stand with us, for the purpose of liberating us from this. Because we are the last people on earth who are under occupation. They need to hear this and take a firm stance to end this.
Toufic Haddad is the co-author and editor of Between the Lines: Readings in Israel, the Palestinians and the US ‘War on Terror’ (Haymarket Books, 2007). He is currently a PhD candidate in Development Studies at the School for Oriental and African Studies in London.
Israeli forces raided the homes of seven prisoners released in the recent prisoner exchange Sunday, according to Ma’an News Agency.
Fakhri and Nael Barghouti were among five other former detainees summoned for questioning by Israeli intelligence after troops searched their homes in Kober.
Israeli troops seized their identity cards and demanded the pair report to Ofer within the week in a pre-dawn raid.
Nael and Fakhri both called for the Egyptian mediators who brokered the prisoner exchange to immediately intervene to end the policy of harassment of former prisoners, according to the Palestine News Network.