“While in prison, I dreamt that I would one day build a big, international library in Palestine, just for children,” said Nael Barghouti on his wedding day.
Just one month ago, he was released from Israeli prison after having served over 33 years behind bars for taking part in a “commando operation” which killed an Israeli soldier, making him the longest serving Palestinian prisoner.
In his West Bank home town of Kobar, where his face is drawn or plastered on nearly every wall, thousands of people came to greet and congratulate him during a traditional lunch of lamb and rice served on his wedding day.
Some gave him gifts, others money donations.
“I am being welcomed not as a person, but as an idea, a symbol for Palestinians,” the 54-year-old said.
Barghouti was arrested on 4 April 1978 at the age of 21, and was sentenced to life in prison. Though in Israel he is not a known figure, nor was the operation he participated in particularly notorious, for Palestinians he is a symbol of sacrifice, and determination. And everyone has heard of him.
He said he was shocked to see how much the West Bank had changed since the 1970s but was impressed to see how much political awareness had grown.
“The world has changed and developed so much since I was gone. But the longer the occupation lasts the worse things are,” he said.
Barghouti was released in a prisoner swap deal between the Islamist Hamas movement and Israel that freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. About 5,000 Palestinians remain in Israeli jails.
Barghouti, whose name was left out of many previous prisoner exchange deals because Israel refused to release him, was released based on a Hamas demand to free veteran prisoners.
Barghouti became known as the dean of prisoners, but he prefers to be called “Abu An Nur” (the father of light).
At the time of his arrest, Barghouti was a member of the armed wing of the Fatah movement. But in prison, he became more religious, and joined the Islamist Hamas movement.
On his release, he was seen waving green Hamas flags.
“My nationalistic goals remain the same despite the fact that my political affiliation has changed,” he said.
Fatah and Hamas have been bitter rivals since 2006 when Hamas violently seized the Gaza Strip from Fatah causing a rift in Palestinian society.
Political prisoners go to jail representing their respective political parties, and a change of political affiliation is unheard of.
But Barghouti emerged as a figure who is well respected by both parties. Palestinians say that he embodies the possibility of obtaining a long sought after Palestinian national unity.
Bride also imprisoned
“Today is a Palestinian national celebration, and not just Nael’s wedding,” said his cousin Ahmad. He never met him before his release, but has heard stories of him since he was a child.
“I am extremely happy that a long, unjust chapter in his life and the history of Palestinians has ended,” he said, standing in a large crowd of men waiting for the groom.
Soon after, Barghouti, middle aged but never married, arrived carried on a man’s shoulders. A large crowd surrounded him, cheering, singing and dancing.
His bride and longtime sweetheart Eman Nafe, 47, wearing a white dress and full makeup waited inside, surrounded by her family and hundreds of women. For years the only contact they had with each other were letters and messages exchanged through family members.
Nafe was herself imprisoned for 10 years in Israel, and was released in 1997. She was accused of attempting to plan a suicide operation in the city of Jaffa.
“Our unique experience joins us and means that we understand each other more than anyone else would,” she said.
Both of Barghouti’s parents died while he was jailed. His closest remaining relative is his younger sister Hanan, who was 12 when he was detained, and his older brother Omar, who has been in Israeli prison for the past 23 years.
Holding up two gold bracelets, Hanan addressed the hundreds of people in the wedding hall and said: “My mother held on to these two gold bracelets so that one day she may give it to Nael’s bride, but she couldn’t. But I am so happy to bring them to her now,” she said, her blue eyes watering.
“The idea that Nael would be released from prison and he and I would be together gives the Palestinian people hope that we could all be free and happy,” Nafe told the guests, as they made their way to the dance floor.