The Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike led by Marwan Barghouti has global repercussions. The Israeli political-security cabinet discussed the issue in light of the strike’s potential to ignite widespread unrest in the West Bank and sever the “idyllic” security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel.
Marwan Barghouti is identified with Fatah. Undoubtedly he has personal political ambitions, but the list of demands he gave the Prisons Service as a condition for ending the hunger strike reflects the demands of all political prisoners. They are hostages of the Israeli government: Israel uses prison conditions as a bargaining chip against Hamas and sometimes even against Abu Mazen.
This strike is unlike others we have known. It bears a strong personal imprint, and Barghouti’s status and prestige are linked to the prisoners’ demands. Success would be an achievement not only for all Palestinian prisoners, but for Barghouti himself. He planned it, leads it, and is raising awareness of it among the public.
The fact that the New York Times published a letter by Barghouti emphasizes the strike’s political nature. It is being waged against the backdrop of a twofold internal Palestinian rift: the rift within the ruling Fatah movement and the rift between Fatah and Hamas (or, we can say, between Ramallah and Gaza). Thus, the demands of the hunger strikers are subordinate to internal political conflicts, which overshadow all other issues including the ongoing struggle against the Israeli occupation.
In contrast to the Israeli claim, Marwan Barghouti is not a terrorist. Like Jibril Rajoub, Mohammad Dahlan and many other young leaders on the PA payroll, he is a political activist who rose through the ranks of Fatah. But he is a long way from being Nelson Mandela. His imprisonment and his ideological path do not unite all prisoners or the Palestinian people behind him.
Marwan Barghouti embodies the Palestinian tragedy. He enthusiastically supported the Oslo Accords and was the darling of the Israeli Left, until one day he realized that his people were fed up with both Oslo and PA corruption. The Palestinians took out their wrath on Israel in October 2000, in what is called the al-Aqsa Intifada, or the Second Intifada. Because of corruption and nepotism, Fatah and Barghouti lost the street to Hamas, and a wave of suicide attacks crossed the Green Line into Israeli cities. Barghouti decided to “ride” the tiger of armed struggle in order to preserve his personal standing and that of Fatah in the face of Hamas’s rising popularity.
Barghouti paid a heavy personal price, but the Palestinian people has paid a much heavier one: Operation Defensive Shield, which came in response to the al-Aqsa Intifada, brought the Israeli army back into the Palestinian cities; Arafat found himself barricaded in the Muqata and was forced to accept Abu Mazen as prime minister; the Palestinians were confined behind the separation barrier; an internal Palestinian schism developed, resulting in a Hamas victory in the 2006 legislative elections; Hamas expelled Fatah and the PA from Gaza in a bloody coup. Since then, we have seen repeated wars with Israel that led to widespread killing and destruction in Gaza. These, in turn, further exacerbated the Fatah-Hamas split. Abu Mazen is seen as a weak leader and an Israeli collaborator, while Hamas is seen as an extreme Islamic organization that uses a heavy hand in ruling Gaza.
The interesting question is: why does Barghouti, the most prominent prisoner and a possible future Palestinian leader, need a hunger strike in order to get what the prisoners demand? In his letter to the New York Times, Barghouti writes: “After exhausting all other options, I decided there was no choice but to resist these abuses by going on a hunger strike.” But prior to the strike, did he even try to do what the situation obviously requires: to persuade Abu Mazen to condition the “sacred” security coordination with Israel on its fulfilling the demands of the hunger strikers, which are no less sacred?
Abu Mazen is far from being interested in the strikers’ demands. What concerns him is Hamas. While Barghouti goes hungry, Abu Mazen has decided that the time is ripe to tighten the siege of Gaza and bring Hamas to its knees. When Barghouti demands humane conditions for the prisoners, Abu Mazen threatens to end all economic support for Gaza if Hamas does not dismantle its government and transfer power to the PA. Just a few weeks ago, Abu Mazen stopped paying the salaries of PA officials in Gaza, who have been “off duty” since Hamas seized control there ten years ago. The PA has also stopped subsidizing fuel for the electric power station in Gaza, leaving the Strip in darkness.
This raises the following questions: What are the Palestinian national priorities? To prepare for Abu Mazen’s visit to the White House and his first meeting with President Trump? To keep struggling against Hamas in order to restore PA rule to Gaza, or failing that, to completely disengage from any responsibility towards the Gazans? To struggle against Mohammed Dahlan’s attempts to succeed Abu Mazen? Or to improve the situation of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails?
A Haaretz report from April 24 on a Fatah dispute over the prisoners’ strike seems reliable. It quotes a senior Fatah official as saying that Abu Mazen wants to “calm the territories ahead of his forthcoming meeting with US President Donald Trump.” If so, then the prisoners’ strike is not high on Abu Mazen’s agenda, and he sees it as having a negative impact on his standing. The dispute runs so deep that Marwan Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, recruited Knesset members Ayman Odeh and Ida Touma Suleiman of Hadash to meet Abu Mazen in an effort to explain the situation of the prisoners and influence his position. Abu Mazen, for his part, promised to act in international circles to save their lives. The very fact that such a meeting had to take place is evidence of the difference between what Abu Mazen says and what he intends.
And if we are talking about duplicity regarding prisoners’ rights, we cannot fail to mention the disgraceful attitude of the PA and of Hadash MKs regarding the atrocities in the prisons of Syria’s Bashar Assad and Egypt’s General el-Sisi. Numerous Arab activists on social networks ask how Palestinian prisoners can expect solidarity while the PA ignores what is happening in Syrian and Egyptian prisons. How can they demand a public telephone and family visits on the one hand, while ignoring the disappearance of 200,000 prisoners in Assad’s prisons on the other? How can they demand more humane conditions from Israel, while ignoring photos of the bodies of 11,000 prisoners who were tortured and starved by Assad? The PA’s continued support of the bloody regime in Damascus overshadows this hunger strike no less than the internal political struggle within Fatah and the power struggle between the PA and Hamas.
All that has been mentioned so far does not turn Israel into an enlightened country. Six thousand political prisoners in Israeli jails are testimony to an ongoing national struggle whose outcome is not in sight. The mistakes of the Palestinian leadership do not justify Israel’s brutal treatment of four million Palestinians. They have been left behind fences and are at the mercy of a government that does not believe in peace and offers no solution beyond the status quo.
After 50 years of occupation and the denial of basic human rights, Israel has no moral right to sit in judgment on Palestinian prisoners while depriving them of decent conditions and the respect due to them as human beings. The people of Israel must know that there will not be one day of quiet as long as there remains even one political prisoner. As long as Palestinian prisoners have no hope for freedom, there is no hope for peace. What lies at the root of this hunger strike is not the right to a public telephone and academic studies within prison walls, but the future and fate of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples.
- Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman