Jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti wants all of the 2,890 Fatah party security prisoners in Israeli jails, as well as those from other movements, to go on an indefinite hunger strike on April 17, Palestinian Prisoners’ Day.
On the surface the move by Barghouti — who is serving five life sentences for masterminding a series of deadly attacks at the start of the Second Intifada — is aimed at Israel. But the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah would do well to notice as well, as the Barghouti is likely attempting to flex his political muscles, despite an attempt by Ramallah to isolate him.
Officially, the Barghouti-led prisoners’ move is in protest of what they see as the Israel Prison Service’s failure to meet their demands regarding an improvement of conditions in the detention centers.
The strike will be Barghouti’s most significant test since he entered prison some 15 years ago.
Next year, he will celebrate his 60th birthday. During his time in prison, he has become a grandfather.
In the Fatah Central Committee’s leadership elections (the party’s most senior institution) in December, he won first place. His wife, Fadwa, took the top place in the movement’s Revolutionary Council elections (the party’s second most senior institution). He is ostensibly the movement’s undisputed leader, despite being behind bars.
However, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his loyalists in the Fatah leadership have carried a series of steps to isolate and weaken him. Abbas did not appoint him as deputy chairman of Fatah, as Barghouti had expected, and other senior positions were divided between rivals Jibril Rajoub and Mahmoud al-Mottak.
Barghouti’s backers also failed to be elected to other spots in the Central Committee, and he’s realized that he has been slowly pushed out of the picture.
Forced from the halls of power, Barghouti is using the strike to signal to the PA with that he can still wield considerable power in the Palestinian street
He made a similar play in 2000. Then, outside the prison walls, Barghouti would lead large rallies of followers to Israeli checkpoints, where they would face off against soldiers.
Barghouti’s problem is that the situation on the Palestinian street is no longer what it was in 2000. He has been isolated in prison, and it is not certain that his strike will find a following, let alone spur despondent West Bank residents to action.
These days, those communities do not rush to demonstrate as they did in the past, focusing more on personal matters than collective ones. They are more prone to “like” a Facebook post than to take to the streets.
In addition, Barghouti’s demand, that Israel give security prisoners access to public telephones, is very steep. Israel is unlikely to simple start installing phone lines.
His demands that Israel increase the number of prisoners’ family visits as well as ban cancellation of these visits for security considerations are also unlikely to find any takers among Israeli authorities.
Barghouti has gone out on a limb and its unclear if the Palestinian street can help him down, or has a ladder to do so.
If this hunger strike ends without results (Ramadan begins on May 26, during which Islam prohibits the enacting of such fasts), Barghouti may find himself even more isolated politically.
Nevertheless, Barghouti’s move has considerable chances for success. The hunger strike is expected to create a serious headache for the Palestinian Authority and its security forces. The situation in the territories (certainly in Ramallah) has been stable and relatively quiet. It appears that the Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation has succeeded in containing unrest on the ground, despite Hamas’s attempts to stir up trouble.
Unlike in the past though, it is difficult to predict how the PA will react to this hunger strike. This is not another provocation by Hamas, which is intent on thwarting Abbas and his colleagues. Nor is this one man trying to secure a get out of jail free card. This is a hunger strike of thousands of prisoners who are members of Fatah, some even former officers in Abbas’s security forces.
To the Palestinian public, these prisoners are “our children” under the leadership of a man who long ago became a national symbol and is considered one of the most popular leaders in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Will the PA security forces rush to disperse a Fatah-led demonstration heading from Birzeit University towards the entrance to Ramallah? They have shown little hesitation stopping processions organized by the Hamas’ student group, Al-Qutla al-Islamiyya. This time, however, the story is different.
Barghouti’s gambit won’t be a cakewalk for Israeli security forces or prison guards either, who may have to contend with large demonstrations and increased tensions inside the prison walls.
It is not yet clear whether Hamas prisoners will join the strike. But in the Hadarim prison, where Barghouti is incarcerated, Hamas has already announced that it will join the measure alongside him.
In other prisons, Hamas inmates are being more careful in reaching a decision; but it is clear that if they join the strike, it will only intensify the unrest.