‘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.
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.
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.