Do the Palestinians have their own Mandela-like figure in waiting?

A new documentary asks if Marwan Barghouti could help find a way to peace after the war in Gaza, ITV News Correspondent Rachel Younger reports

Among all of the headlines coming out of the Middle East since the war began, one name rarely mentioned is Marwan Barghouti.

But he is at the heart of the deadlocked ceasefire negotiations between the two sides.

Not because he has taken part in them - Barghouti has been inside Israeli prisons for 22 years - but because he is someone Hamas insist must be freed if there’s to be another exchange of Israeli hostages.

Many Israelis see Barghouti as an arch-terrorist, but Tomorrow’s Freedom, a documentary released this week, asks if he could help find a way to peace after the war.

The film was made before the conflict began.

As its director Sophia Scott acknowledges, it is not an easy question to pose with Israel still reeling from the October 7 attack and Gaza devastated by the scale of the Israeli response.

“One of the only good things that has come about is that people are asking what about the day after. It’s hard when people are being killed, but what happens the day after when peace hopefully can come to the Middle East?," Ms Scott said.

"Who can create that? Now Barghouti is someone not only Palestinians but also Israelis and international politicians recognise could bridge that massive gap between Israelis and Palestinians and among Palestinians as well. But he’s languishing in jail.”

Tomorrow’s Freedom is an intimate portrait of Barghouti’s wife and children, as they struggle to get any access to him.

The few visits permitted by the Israeli authorities over the years have dried up entirely since the war began.

Barghouti has never recognised the authority of the Israeli court that convicted him of ordering terror arracks on Tel Aviv in 2002.

Director of Tomorrow's Freedom Sophia Scott. Credit: ITV News

The film charts his path, as an elected Fatah member of parliament, as one of the strongest backers of the Oslo Peace Accords in the 1990s, to disillusionment as the international community failed to end the Israeli occupation.

It gives voice to some of those who’ve campaigned for his freedom like the former US President Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

But while polls still show that he is the leader most Palestinians want, his son Arab, who lives in the West Bank, told ITV News he just wants his father back home.

With at least 13 Palestinian prisoners having died in Israeli prisons since October 7, his fear is palpable.

“For my father’s case they want to set an example,” Arab said. “He was put in a very tiny cell, given minimal food, he’s already lost 10 kilograms.

Arab, Marwan Barghouti's son. Credit: ITV News

“For weeks they put speakers on at high volume so he couldn’t sleep and shone a spotlight in his face. They take his mattress, the only thing in his cell, from 5am to 9pm.

“On March 9 a few of the prison guards beat him until he passed out and then left him for three hours. When he woke up he was full of blood. He didn’t get medical treatment.”

Fearful though he is, Arab says he feels guilty complaining about what his family is going through “when [he sees] 2.3 million people in Gaza losing everything, their homes, their lives, their children".

“All he is thinking about is the suffering of the Palestinian people and how he can bring that suffering to an end,” Arab said.

When asked how he can defend a man Israel judges a terrorist he sighs deeply.

“It fascinates me that everyone knows that Israel’s occupation is illegal. That Benjamin Netanyahu is breaking international law by targeting children in Gaza.

"My father hasn’t just been working for peace for a few years. He was a big supporter of the two-state solution and the Oslo Accords even when many Palestinians disapproved of that. That is the kind of leader he is.”

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ITV News asked Nomi Bar-Yaacov, an international security fellow at Chatham House and a seasoned negotiator in the Middle East, whether Barghouti could play a significant role again.

“I think it very much depends on what he says and does when he comes out, assuming he is released,” she said. “Whether he continues to advocate violence or whether he draws a line under violence and moves to diplomacy.

"To say: 'Okay, now is the time to ensure that the occupation ends, Palestinians get their state. The whole world is of that opinion, Israel is trailing somewhat behind, still suffering from the trauma of October 7. Let’s engage with the Israelis constructively to ensure that they feel secure'.

"That is what it boils down to,” she said.

Bar-Yaacov stresses the role Barghouti might play would depend on any conditions surrounding his release, the will of the Palestinian people and whether their existing government of Mahmoud Abbas and any future Israeli administration would work with him.

That’s a lot of 'ifs'.

But she recognises his record of being able to bring different factions together.

“The big question, is will they give him that role?” she concluded.

With the war meaning scars run so much deeper now on either side, it’s never been harder to assess the history of this conflict.

Or ask what it would take, as this film does, to secure Tomorrow’s Freedom from it.

Tomorrow’s Freedom is being shown at some of the UK’s independent cinemas.

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