As over a thousand Palestinians held in Israeli prisons prepared to begin a mass hunger strike called by an imprisoned senior Fatah terror chief, Israel’s Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said Sunday that the strike is really about internal Palestinian politics and not an alleged dispute over prison conditions.
The hunger strike initiated by jailed Fatah official Marwan Barghouti is expected to start Monday – to coincide with Palestinian “Prisoners Day,” an annual event held in solidarity with the more than 6,000 Palestinian security prisoners incarcerated in Israeli jails. Barghouti is currently serving five life sentences for his role in murderous terror attacks during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s.
With the annual event comes the concern of increased tensions in the prisons, and in the West Bank with Israeli security forces. Hamas, Fatah’s main rival, announced Sunday that its members will also join the strike, as did the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), another Palestinian faction.
Some 1,500 prisoners associated with Fatah, out of some 3,000, are expected to participate in his initiative. Israeli officials put the expected number lower, at around 1,000-1,100 prisoners. More prisoners are expected to join the strike in later stages.
Erdan held a situation assessment via conference call with security officials from the Israel Prison Service, the IDF, the Shin Bet internal security service and the Health Ministry, according to a statement released by his office Sunday.
“The strike led by Barghouti is motivated by internal Palestinian politics and therefore includes unreasonable demands concerning the conditions in the prisons,” Erdan said in the statement. “I have instructed the prison service to act in any way to contain the strike within the walls of the prisons and the Israel Police to prepare and provide any help needed to the prison service for any scenario that is likely to develop.”
In addition, special prison service units tasked with quelling rioting and disorder have been moved to prisons where hunger strikes are expected. Stringent measures have been applied to prevent any unlawful communication between prisoners and some may be transferred to other prisons at the discretion of the prison service, the statement said.
The statement from Erdan’s office also said that after information about the strike was first received two months ago, the minister held consultations with the prison service and the relevant security officials to review readiness for dealing with the strike. Among the details discussed was providing adequate medical support to prisons to avoid the need to move striking prisoners to civilian hospitals as required by the Israeli Health Ministry. To that end, a field hospital will be set up next to Ketziot Prison to attend to any inmates who require medical attention.
A power play
Barghouti began to call for a strike after talks between prisoners’ representatives and the Israel Prison Service on improving prison conditions reached an impasse. Those talks began more than a year and a half ago.
But many Palestinians attribute Barghouti’s move to an attempt to send a message specifically to the Fatah leadership and to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who excluded Barghouti’s people from a recent Central Committee meeting and didn’t give Barghouti the position of deputy chair to the PA.
Among the demands from Barghouti and the prisoners are the resumption of a second monthly visit by family members (a benefit that was cancelled by the International Committee of the Red Cross due to budget cuts), the prevention of family meetings being cancelled for security reasons, and the restoration of academic studies and matriculation exams to prisoners. Other demands include more television channels being available in cells and cell phones in security wings.
According to sources close to Barghouti, the gradual increase in prisoners joining the strike is a planned step intended to prevent it from breaking early. But some have said that the fact that only about half of the Fatah prisoners announced that they would join points to a disagreement over Barghouti’s measure.
Barghouti supporters are also planning parades and demonstrations in the West Bank in support of the strike. Senior PA and Fatah officials have shown public support for Barghouti’s plan in light of what they see as reasonable demands by the prisoners.
But the questions remain: How will the Palestinian public respond? And the Palestinian security forces?
A reasonable expectation is that the security forces won’t rush to dispel demonstrations that are solely Fatah people, even if they are a show of support to measures initiated by Abbas’s rival. Indeed, Barghouti is often touted as one of a few likely successors to the elderly Palestinian leader.
Barghouti, the former leader of the Tanzim armed wing of Fatah and the founder of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, another Fatah terror group, was convicted in 2004 on five counts of murder and one attempted murder, and was implicated in and held responsible for four other terror attacks.
He has remained politically active from behind bars.