The history of Palestinian political prisoners is replete with struggles that have claimed many victims but that have always had two characteristics: first, they expressed a collective decision, and second, their demands were focused on improving prison conditions. In these respects, the series of hunger strikes beginning in 2012 with Khader Adnan (66 days), a series which has since included others and is now continuing dangerously with Samer Issawi (more than 200 days) is exceptional. Each strike is the consequence of a private decision, and its purpose is to force Israel to liberate the striker.
Another exceptional feature of this heroic struggle is that in the pre-Oslo past, the striking prisoners belonged to Palestinian movements that were all outlawed and persecuted by the Occupation authorities. In Issawi’s case, however, the prisoner is associated with a legal Palestinian current linked to Salam Fayyad’s government, maintains relations with Israel, and cooperates with it in security, administration and economy. Moreover, Issawi had been freed as part of the Shalit deal, which was signed by Israel and Hamas under the mediation of Egypt. His hunger strike has provoked the Palestinian Authority (PA) into harshly criticizing Hamas, because the latter had failed to secure sufficient assurances to prevent the re-arrest of freed prisoners. Issawi claims he did nothing to breach the conditions of his release.
The differences between Fatah and Hamas do not end there. Each side in the West Bank and Gaza exploits the hunger strikes, including Issawi’s, for its own interests. Instead of uniting the factions of the Palestinian people in a common struggle, the strikes have had the unintended effect of deepening internal divisions. Both Fatah and Hamas have reached an impasse and both have lost credibility. They meet in Cairo in repeated failed attempts to end the division. The hunger strikes are evidence that the prisoners have abandoned hope of being freed by negotiations or a further prisoner exchange. Their refusal to eat indirectly expresses their lack of confidence in the Palestinian leadership.
In an article on Al-Hayat’s website (February 23, 2013), Majid Kiyali describes the Palestinian leadership’s dead end and precisely pinpoints the root of the problem besetting the Palestinian people: its unwillingness to recognize its mistakes and change its ways. “What leaps to the eye on this subject is the reluctance on the part of the Fatah leadership (which heads both the PLO and the Authority) to recognize that its negotiations have failed, as have its searches for alternative political paths or struggles.” He explains: “The same situation obtains for the Hamas movement: it is unwilling to admit that the armed struggle, particularly suicide missions, has not served the national struggle well. This is clear both from the course of events and from the suppression of opposition to armed struggle, whether regular or suicide, whether in the West Bank or in Gaza.”
The Palestinian Authority headed by Abu Mazen decided to opt for “struggle” and jump on the wave of protest. Its activists could be found in the front lines. But only a few days passed before the PA’s real purpose became clear: not to let things get out of hand, and “not to be drawn into the provocations of the Occupation.” On the Israeli side, the current wave of protests motivated preparations for the possible outbreak of a third Intifada. Yet after Israel handed over 450 million shekels in PA tax money it had withheld, and after consultations in Cairo on the prisoners’ issue, Abu Mazen instructed the PA police to prevent spats between the protesters and the Occupation “in order to preserve the safety of the Palestinian civilian.”
At a time when the PA conveys reassuring messages to Israel, there are some who call for a third Intifada; they can be found not only in the West Bank but also in Gaza. In an article that appeared on the electronic version of the newspaper identified with Fatah, Al Ayam (February 27), author Rajab Abu Sariya compares what is happening in Palestine to the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia that are now under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. “This is the dilemma which the Palestinians, the Egyptians, and the Tunisians now face after the organizations connected to the Muslim Brotherhood seized power in Gaza, Egypt, and Tunisia,” he explains. “The situation in Egypt is not expected to calm down. The revolution there continues, and this is so for Tunisia as well. The Palestinians are on the verge of Intifada for the third time. Then there are those who say that the Palestinians erupt into Intifada every 13 years. The Palestinian Intifada will have to be of a slightly different nature from the two previous ones. It must not be seen through the eyes of those leaders for whom it is a mere pressure device to improve the PA’s negotiating position. Whereas the first Intifada had a deeply popular character, and the second was armed, what is needed today is a popular Intifada that is non-violent, or one that includes all forms of struggle, but the important thing is that it include not only the West Bank but also Gaza, as well as the Palestinian Diaspora”.
Palestine and the Arab world
Abu Sariya calls on the Palestinians to adopt the slogan of “toppling the regime,” exactly like the revolutionary movements in Egypt and Tunisia. But in Gaza, the head of the Legislative Council, Ahmed Bahar (Hamas) called for a third Intifada against Abu Mazen and the PA. In turn, the PA called on Israel to free Palestinian prisoners while itself arresting 6 Hamas members: according to PA police spokesman, Adnan Damiri, “they planned to turn the events in the West Bank into violent riots.” Damiri added: “Hamas respects the hudna (cease fire) with Israel in Gaza but does its best to draw the West Bank into violent conflict in order to harm the status of the PA” (Al-Hayat Feb. 27).
The mutual recriminations indicate the lack of a program or of authority to lead the Palestinian people in its struggle to end the Occupation. Hamas merely seeks to impose its rule over Gaza, just as the Muslim Brotherhood has in Egypt and Tunisia, relying on Qatar for financial support. Fatah, for its part, wants to retain its control over the West Bank, relying on funds from donor countries such as the USA, Saudi Arabia, Europe, and Israel. And the Palestinian people finds itself trapped between a rock and a hard place.
In Egypt, Tunisia, and other Arab countries, young revolutionaries succeeded, in a manner unprecedented in the Arab world, in toppling tyrannical regimes. For over two years now, this ongoing revolution continues to inspire the struggle for democratic rights and social justice. There is no doubt that the Third Palestinian Intifada will come, it’s just a question of time. Maybe the hunger strike in occupation prisons is a sign that its time is coming. But for it to succeed in mobilizing the entire Palestinian people, a revolutionary leadership will have to replace the existing institutions, which are dependent on corrupt regimes and bear responsibility for division among the Palestinians. The time has come to return to Palestinian independence of decision. It is time for Palestine to go the way of Arab countries whose youth are striving towards self-determination. It is time for Palestine to determine its own destiny at last—free of the Occupation and free of the Oslo Accords.