At least 1,187 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons began an open-ended hunger strike on Monday. At the same time, thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in demonstrations proclaiming solidarity with the strikers, sparking clashes with Israeli security forces in some places.
The timing is not accidental, nor is the strike a spontaneous response to some new tension or crisis between the Israel Prisons Service and the Palestinian prisoners.
April 17 is the Palestinian “Day of the Prisoner,” with the hunger strike deliberately timed to capitalize on the day’s expressions of support for the prisoners.
The strike is a political step, carefully planned and organized by Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader who is determined to demonstrate to all concerned his mastery, both in skill and stature, of Palestinian politics.
Barghouti, imprisoned since 2002 and sentenced by a civilian Israeli court to five life terms for orchestrating murderous terrorism during the second intifada, has not been a particularly outspoken personage when it comes to Palestinian prisoners. He has remained inactive in the campaigns for prisoners’ rights over the last 15 years, and has resisted any pressure to join other Palestinian hunger strikers in Israeli prisons in solidarity.
So what happened? What led the Fatah leader to launch such a bold move?
The answer, in all likelihood, lies in his disappointment with the current Fatah leadership, and especially the movement’s octogenarian chairman, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who have worked hard to minimize his influence in its top echelons.
Barghouti holds the top slot in Fatah’s top body, the Central Committee, but his purported “friends” in the movement, through procedural and other measures, have managed to keep every one of his backers out of the party’s leadership ranks, effectively isolating him. Barghouti also expected Abbas to appoint him to a senior post, perhaps as his deputy, but in recent months Abbas has done the opposite, sidestepping the imprisoned former head of Fatah’s Tanzim militia and advancing Jibril Rajoub and Mahmoud al-Aloul instead.
Barghouti’s confidants deny the latest hunger strike is a political maneuver. The demands presented by Barghouti and his fellow strikers to the Israel Prisons Service were first made six months ago, they note, before the elections to Fatah’s Central Committee that created the current political impasse.
And it is true that the negotiations between Israeli authorities and the prisoners surrounding these demands began more than six months ago. Even so, the unusually dramatic strike has pushed the sidelined Barghouti once more to the forefront of internal Fatah politics. It is hard to believe this was an unintended consequence.
It’s been nearly two decades since Barghouti played the part of the infamous Tanzim chief surrounded by loyal and ruthless gunmen. He is now 58, a grandfather, and an operator who has the active support of a wide network of people outside the prison’s walls. On the day the hunger strike was launched, an op-ed, ostensibly penned by him, was published in the New York Times in which he explains why he called the strike. That is to say, the op-ed, as with a host of other actions taken outside the prisons to support the strike, was meticulously prepared ahead of time with the explicit purpose of generating maximum support not only among the Palestinian public, but also internationally.
Barghouti’s demands – public telephones in the security wards, reinstating a second visiting period each month, and restarting the academic studies program for prisoners – are all carefully chosen to conform with the consensus view of the Palestinian public and political leadership, a fact that robs his competitors of any argument against his hunger strike. Nearly every key leader of both Fatah and Hamas has spent some time in an Israeli prison, and all view Barghouti’s demands as justified, even if they resent him for stealing the political spotlight by making them.
The struggle now begun by Barghouti and his allies, the bid to return to the political center stage via the prisoners issue, will not be decided for many weeks. Only then will it be possible to gauge the support he enjoys both within the prisons and beyond.
The figure of 1,187 striking prisoners on day one is a respectable showing, more than the Israeli side expected but less than the Palestinian side hoped. So, too, the thousands of demonstrators who joined the “Day of the Prisoner” protests are a success, but not a dramatic one. Not every Fatah prisoner has joined the strike, in part because some suspect Barghouti is attempting to use them for his own political ends. Barghouti’s backers, for their part, say these prisoners constitute the “reserve force” of the strike, and will join it at a later stage to help sustain the pressure on the Israeli authorities.
Hamas prisoners, too, even as they declare their support and impending participation in the hunger strike, are sitting it out for the moment, stayed by the same distrust that sees in Barghouti’s actions an attempt to “steal the show.”
Similarly, it is too early to tell how much support the strike is generating among the Palestinian public, and how the Palestinian Authority and its security forces will respond.
Will Barghouti and his supporters succeed in generating larger mass protests in the coming weeks? Will the Palestinian Authority join the “popular” actions, or try to prevent them?
And of course, how will the Israel Prisons Service and Israeli decision-makers respond to the strike?
This question is fundamental for Barghouti. Israel is acutely aware that if the strike ends without any concessions to the prisoners’ demands, that would mean a painful domestic setback for the imprisoned former terror leader. If, on the other hand, some of the demands are met, Barghouti will once again be seen by Palestinians as the only leader capable of leading a meaningful and successful struggle against Israel.