Analysis

With Palestinian Prisoner Strike, Barghouti Challenges Abbas' Leadership

Will a Palestinian hunger strike rain on Trump’s peace plans?

Protesters hold portraits of Palestinian prisoners during a rally in the West Bank city of Ramallah to show their support to Palestinians detained in Israeli jails after hundred of them launched a hunger strike on April 17, 2017.
More than 1,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails launched a hunger strike following a call from Palestinian leader and prominent prisoner Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian Authority official said. / AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI
Protesters hold portraits of Palestinian prisoners during a rally in the West Bank city of Ramallah to show their support to Palestinians detained in Israeli jails after hundred of them launched a hun ABBAS MOMANI/AFP

The hunger strike that nearly 1,200 Palestinian security prisoners in Israel began on Monday is expected to ratchet up the tensions between Israel and the Palestinians in the coming days. If complications occur and the strike lasts for an extended time, it is liable to take over the security and diplomatic agenda at a time when U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration is declaring its intention to restart the peace process.

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However, like another crisis that escalated in recent days over the supply of electricity to the Gaza Strip, it appears that the background to the strike has to do with intra-Palestinian power struggles as much as it has to do with the struggle against Israel.

The hunger strike is basically the initiative of a single person, Marwan Barghouti, the highest-ranking Fatah prisoner in Israel. The media attention from a prolonged strike will serve him in his moves vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority leadership, which is officially supporting the strike but in actuality is concerned about any outcome that could advance the standing of the imprisoned leader, who is not especially liked by President Mahmoud Abbas and his people. Barghouti already took credit for an initial success on Monday with an Op-Ed in The New York Times. (For some reason, the editors of the newspaper omitted from the publication the reason Barghouti is in prison: He was arrested and tried in 2002 for dispatching terrorists to carry out attacks at the height of the second intifada in which five Israeli civilians were killed. The piece has since been amended with an editor's note amid a wave of heavy criticism.)

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Jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti appearing in court in 2003.
Moti Kimche

Abbas is slated to visit the White House at the beginning of next month. At the end of May, the month of Ramadan will begin. These are two target dates. If the strike continues until then, it could mean a serious crisis. The longer the strike lasts, the more likely it is that there will be complications: hospitalization of hunger strikers, dilemmas concerning force-feeding and the danger of prisoners dying, which could inflame the mood in the Palestinian territories.

Barghouti has put together various prisoner demands – cancellation of administrative detentions, more family visitation hours, renewal of academic studies, more television channels – as a broad common denominator around which most of the prisoners and most of the Palestinian organizations can unite around. Hamas, whose top people are acting in close coordination with Barghouti, has announced its partial support. About one third of Fatah prisoners have joined the strike. On Monday, thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank participated in solidarity rallies marking Palestinian Prisoners Day. In both these cases, the numbers are quite high, but not yet extraordinarily so.

The main demands of the hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners.
ABBAS MOMANI/AFP

On the Israeli side, there is Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan's declared intention not to conduct any negotiations with the prisoners and not to accede to any demand, which has the support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. In the past, such determination melted away as the strikes grew longer and things became complicated. However, it is possible that in the current political reality, Erdan does not have much real wiggle room and will have to demonstrate toughness. In any case, this is a crisis that will necessitate close management by top government officials and the defense establishment for fear of repercussions outside the prison walls.

Nevertheless, it appears that Barghouti and other strike organizers will face two obstacles in their attempt to leverage the move. The first has to do with the level of international attention on the strike. With hundreds of people being slaughtered in horrific acts of terror in Syria's Aleppo and Idlib, it will be hard for the Palestinian prisoners to enlist the Arab world’s empathy and even its attention for their struggle. Without belittling the difficulties the prisoners face, it cannot be ignored that there have been cases in recent years of youngsters from Gaza crossing into Israel with improvised weapons because they believe that conditions in Israeli prison are preferable to life in the Strip.

Abbas' threats

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends the summit of the Arab League at the Dead Sea, Jordan, Wednesday, March 29, 2017.
Raad Adayleh/AP

Meanwhile, the electricity crisis in Gaza is back on. The Hamas government has once again limited the electricity supply, which is now available for only about six hours a day. The backdrop is an economic struggle with the Palestinian Authority over the question of who will pay the excise on the diesel fuel brought in from Israel to the Gaza power station, which the electricity supply depends on. Until the beginning of April the excise was funded by Qatari aid, but now the Palestinian Authority has announced that it refuses to continue funding the payment.

This decision follows another move by Abbas: a 30 percent pay cut for PA employees who live in the Strip. The Palestinian leader has said recently that he is fed up with the 10 years of economic aid he has been giving the Hamas government in Gaza without getting anything in return. The PA is also threatening that if Hamas does not yield authority to it in the Gaza Strip, including responsibility for the border crossing points and security activity, it will entirely cease its monetary transfers to the enclave. It is doubtful that these threats will be carried out in full, but they do reflect an attempt by Abbas to take a more aggressive line towards Hamas and its new leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar.

As in the Barghouti matter, this power struggle is far from ending. However, in this case too, both Palestinian sides are directing much of the blame at the Israeli occupation. The Gaza Strip is still managing to survive and function, even with the impossibility of electricity working only one quarter of the time. However, prolonging the crisis could once again contribute to tensions with Israel as well, even in a period when Hamas, for its own reasons, looks as though it is making a considerable effort to rein in the Salafist organizations’ rocket fire at Israeli communities on Gaza's borders.