Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Palestinian prisoner strike seems to be about Palestinian politics, not prisoners

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Shmuel Levin

In recent days, much media coverage has been devoted to the hunger strike in Israeli prisons declared on Monday. Most notoriously, the New York Times published an opinion piece written by the leader of the strike, Marwan Barghouti, and failed to mention that Barghouti is in prison having been convicted in a civilian court for orchestrating multiple murders and terror attacks against civilians.

Ironically, the New York Times may have inadvertently stumbled upon the truth about the strike when it chose to describe Barghouti as a "Palestinian leader and parliamentarian". This is because many analysts and experts astutely believe that the hunger strike is primarily underpinned by Barghouti's political aspirations, rather than his prison conditions, despite the various demands being put forward for more family visits, an end to solitary confinement, better health care and greater educational opportunities.

In recent times, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other senior Fatah officials have sidelined Barghouti politically. Despite holding the highest position in Fatah's highest body, the Central Committee, Barghouti has been effectively isolated, as his backers have been kept out of leadership positions. Additionally, Barghouti "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". According to Orit Adato, a former commissioner of the Israeli Prison Service, Barghouti now feels that "he is not being considered enough by the Palestinian Authority, and so he must come forward and say something to gain some political power outside".

As such, media attention from the hunger strike will likely serve Barghouti "in his moves vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority leadership". Additionally, Barghouti is seeking to capitalise on the younger generation of prisoners who may not be "on the agenda of the Palestinian Authority". Here, Barghouti can use the strike to gain popularity by contrasting his role "at the forefront of a struggle against oppression and Abbas's perceived passivity in the face of Israeli rule".

Moreover, the timing of the hunger strike is strategic. April 17 is the Palestinian "Day of the Prisoner," and the strike appears deliberately timed to capitalise on the day's expressions of support for the prisoners. In addition, Abbas is due to visit Washington next month and the ongoing strike threatens to overshadow the security agenda. Moreover, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins in late May, which further threatens to exacerbate the strike's impact.

The Fatah party is not entirely opposed to the strike because it may benefit Fatah's standing in its rivalry with Hamas, and because it may upgrade the Palestinian cause on the "regional and international agenda, where it has taken a back seat over the past six years due to the Arab Spring and the internal fighting in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen".

As such, the Palestinian Authority has been officially supporting the strike while also remaining concerned about "any outcome that could advance the standing of the imprisoned leader". Thus, despite attempts by Barghouti's wife to portray the strike as separate from Barghouti's personal ambitions, no notable Palestinian leader has made a public appearance together with her. Moreover, not all Fatah prisoners have joined the strike, likely in part because of suspicions over Barghouti's political motives. For his part, Barghouti has sought to dodge this issue by labelling these prisoners the "reserve force" that will join the strike at a later date to sustain pressure on Israel.

The outcome of the strike remains to be seen. But notwithstanding the New York Times' best efforts to the contrary, as Yaron Blum, a former senior Israeli intelligence official argues, for now Barghouti is building a "reputation of being far more extreme than Abbas and he is continuing his efforts to acquire political capital that may, in his dreams, lead to his release."

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