The death of Arafat Jaradat in the Megiddo Prison, together with the 216-day-long hunger strike of Samer el-Issawi and the hunger strike of three other prisoners, the demonstrations commemorating the anniversary of the massacre perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein in Hebron in 1994, the clashes in the village of Kusra in the Nablus district – all these are supposedly “local incidents” that can be easily defeated by a few smoke grenades, rubber bullets and arrests.
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Nobody describes them as an intifada yet, and with good reason. The term “intifada” is reserved for an all-out war, a series of terror attacks, call-ups of the reserves and flooding the ground with troops. These things have not happened yet in the West Bank.
The Fatah leadership, headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), has announced that they will not allow the outbreak of a new intifada. Certainly they will not allow it on the eve of U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Israel. Nor will they allow it when Abbas’s representatives, Saeb Erekat and Muhammad Shtaya, are holding talks about the scheduling of the visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. But all it takes is the death of one of the prisoners on a hunger strike or several youths being killed by IDF gunfire to make the Palestinian Authority lose its restraining power, which is not all that much in any case.
Quite a few groups are operating in the West Bank, including Abbas’s critics and rivals within Fatah, who believe that he is not strong enough to cause a change in Israel’s policy. Some of them are demanding that the Palestinian Authority be dismantled and Israel “handed back the keys.” Others fear that Abbas’s political moves against Hamas could shut Fatah out of the positions that control wealth and power. Setting the ground ablaze could serve those groups, locking Abbas into a belligerent stance he never intended to take.
This is not Abbas’s dilemma only. For now, the demonstrations and clashes have attained one important goal: the affair of the prisoners has led to demonstrations of support and statements of solidarity in Beirut, Egypt and Jordan, and “serious concern” by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. They have also been discussed in Washington by the Palestinian emissaries, and the Arab League intends to transfer the matter to the Security Council.
But all this international activity will not impress the activists on the ground, or the prisoners, as long as Israel gives nothing in exchange or makes no compromises. As usual, the question is whether Israel will succeed in taking an important measure before things go out of control, or wait for more pressure from the ground and from the international community. On several occasions in the past, Israel realized that there was no sense in dealing stubbornly with a hunger strike, which not only won support but also put it under international pressure that it didn’t need. The case of Khader Adnan, an Islamic Jihad operative whom Israel released from prison where he had been under administrative detention after a 67-day hunger strike, is just one example.
Even if the price of dealing quickly and rapidly with the jailed hunger strikers involves making concessions, it is still much lower than an escalation that could cause hunger strikes to spread to all the prisons and nourish clashes in the city streets. In a situation where there is still no government in Israel that can make decisions on the peace process, start talks with the Palestinian Authority and offer a practical peace arrangement, the least Israel can do is calm inflamed areas. The most sensitive among them is the matter of the hunger-striking prisoners.