Barghouti is forcing Israel to decide between bad and worse
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Analysis

Barghouti is forcing Israel to decide between bad and worse

To negotiate with the hunger-striking Fatah leader and terrorist would give him legitimacy; to ignore him would risk igniting the Palestinian street as Trump flies in

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian women walk past a wall bearing posters, including a portrait of prominent prisoner Marwan Barghouti, during a rally in Ramallah, in support of him and other prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails on April 24, 2017. (AFP/Abbas Momani)
Palestinian women walk past a wall bearing posters, including a portrait of prominent prisoner Marwan Barghouti, during a rally in Ramallah, in support of him and other prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails on April 24, 2017. (AFP/Abbas Momani)

‘The popularity of Marwan Barghouti has spiked significantly since the hunger strike launched,” a well-known Gazan commentator, Naji Sharab, wrote on the Palestinian news site Donia al-Watan on Wednesday.

Barghouti “has become a Palestinian national icon whose name is championed in every household,” said the Al-Azhar political science professor.

Indeed. A month after Barghouti launched a hunger strike with over a thousand of his fellow Palestinian security prisoners, the Israeli side still apparently does not understand the implications it is having on the Palestinian public.

Barghouti is now the name heard on every street corner, at every demonstration. The strike, which on Wednesday entered its 31st day, has not set the territories ablaze, but there is now a consensus among Palestinian commentators and decision-makers that it has turned Barghouti into nothing short of a national symbol. Were the Palestinians about to hold leadership elections — and they’re not — he’d win at a canter.

Palestinians protest in solidarity with security prisoners on a hunger strike by the security barrier in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on April 26, 2017. (AFP Photo/Musa Al Shaer)
Palestinians protest in solidarity with security prisoners on a hunger strike by the security barrier in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on April 26, 2017. (AFP Photo/Musa Al Shaer)

The analysis provided by Gaza’s Sharab was in no way exceptional. Go to any and every Palestinian city in the West Bank and it rapidly becomes evident that prisoner number one, a terrorist serving five life terms after being convicted in an Israeli civilian court of orchestrating murders in the Second Intifada, is now regarded by the Palestinians as “our Nelson Mandela.”

For now, the Israeli leadership prefers to ignore the impact of the hunger strike on Palestinian public opinion. It is possible that fear of criticism from the right — “What will they say if we agree to some of the prisoners’ demands?” — is a factor. Or, perhaps, the fact that the strike is not currently gaining momentum inside the prisons themselves: It currently includes “just” 850 Fatah participants — less than a third of the movement’s roughly 3,000 prisoners. And only a few Hamas inmates have joined.

A capitulation to Barghouti’s demands would strengthen his position in jail and ostensibly grant him a kind of Israeli recognition. Again and again, there are Israeli voices heard saying that Barghouti does not actually enjoy a particularly influential status in prison, and the numbers make that contention hard to dispute. He has opposition in jail from other Fatah leaders. Outside, members of the Fatah Central Committee have tried to undermine the strike.

Palestinians take part in a protest in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on May 4, 2017. (Flash90)
Palestinians take part in a protest in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on May 4, 2017.(Flash90)

But Barghouti cares most about his status with the Palestinian public. His decision to initiate the strike was a gambit intended to improve his position as the post-Mahmoud Abbas era approaches. In this, he has succeeded.

Israel now has two options: one bad and the other worse. The first would be to talk to Barghouti — giving him legitimacy, but defanging the strike. The second: to persist with the “no surrender” approach, and enable Barghouti to depict himself as a tormented martyr, while risking the death of Palestinian prisoners, with President Donald Trump about to fly in.

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