The hope of ending the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike before the visit of U.S. President Donald Trump has so far not been realized. The danger that striking prisoners will have to be hospitalized, or might even die, during the visit is still out there, and of course, regardless of Trump, such a development could heat things up in the territories. Although there have been many shows of solidarity in the West Bank with the strikers, the Nakba Day demonstrations this week passed fairly quietly. There has not been any spike in violence.
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One reason for the strike, and a key demand by the prisoners now, first arose a year ago. Since 1968, a year after the Six-Day War, the International Red Cross has arranged twice a month for hundreds of buses and taxis to transport prisoners’ family members from the West Bank and Gaza to visit their relatives in Israeli prisons. In 2016, 114,000 Palestinians participated in 54,000 such visits. In 2015, they cost the organization 24 million shekels.
Last year, the Red Cross decided to reduce the visits to once a month, officially because the rising costs of providing aid to war victims in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries compelled it to cut back in other areas. In Israel, there was suspicion that the Red Cross made a political calculation to distance itself a bit from this charged issue.
The Red Cross still arranges monthly family visits and has offered to lend Israel and the Palestinian Authority guidance in organizing the second visit. It appears that logistical problems (getting Israel and the PA to agree on the exact procedure and on the inspection of permits for the visitors) rather than funding problems have so far prevented the situation from returning to what it used to be. For the prisoners, this is a critical matter and one of their most prominent demands. In the last few days there have been indirect contacts in an attempt to resolve the issue of the second family visit, which seems to have become the main obstacle to ending the strike.
While Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan and the Prison Service have been maintaining a rigid stance toward the prisoners’ demands, the other security organizations are showing a desire to seek a strike-ending deal. The main reason involves another urgent problem that hasn’t received sufficient attention in the Israeli media: the fear that all the pressure building up in Gaza will lead to another military flare-up this summer. An escalation with the hunger strikers could also fuel the crisis in Gaza.
The Tortit wafer that the Prison Service used to catch Marwan Barghouti eating a couple weeks ago didn’t bring an end to the strike. The Palestinian public’s reaction to the tape appears to have diverged from the reactions within the prisons. In the territories, the episode only boosted Barghouti’s popularity, as he was perceived by many as the victim of an underhanded ploy by Israeli authorities, while the PA is trying to undermine him from the inside. But reaction inside the prisons was apparently not so sympathetic; Barghouti’s standing in Fatah could be hurt when the strike is over.
Even so, less than a fifth of the Fatah prisoners (about 700 out of 3,600) are still taking part in the strike. Barghouti’s support is stronger among prisoners from his home of Ramallah and from the Jenin area. This is related to the power struggles with Fatah prisoners from Hebron and Nablus. Hamas is playing a double game here, too. Several dozen Hamas prisoners are participating in the strike, but the internal competition between the two organizations is still fierce. Hamas claims credit for certain gains won by the prisoners after the 2004 hunger strike. Barghouti’s people fear that ending the current strike without the Prison Service acceding at least partially to their demands will be construed as a ringing failure in the competition with Hamas.
From reading some of the pieces on Haaretz’s opinion pages in recent weeks, one could get the impression that Marwan Barghouti is a freedom fighter whose place in history is reserved alongside that of Nelson Mandela. But intertwined with the Palestinian prisoners’ demands for improved conditions are certain political calculations having to do with the power struggles being played out in the prisons and with Barghouti’s standing vis-a-vis the PA leadership, which is wary of his popularity with the public in the territories.
Some of these articles also somehow omitted the reason for Barghouti’s incarceration. He was convicted of murdering five people: an Israeli woman who was shot to death near Givat Ze’ev, a Greek monk who was shot to death near Ramallah (The terrorists mistook him for an Israeli) and three Israelis who were killed in the shooting and stabbing attack at the Seafood Market restaurant in Tel Aviv.
This was at the height of the second intifada – a period Israelis tend not to think about – when suicide bombers were blowing up buses, restaurants and cafes nearly every week. Fatah, largely at the urging of Barghouti (and inspired by Yasser Arafat) played an active role as it vied with Hamas for control of the Palestinian street. As the confrontation escalated, Fatah crossed even the few red lines it had set for itself. Fatah dispatched terrorists armed with explosive belts to commit suicide attacks, and eventually moved these operations inside the Green Line, too.
Barghouti was not only a partner in setting these policies, he also liased between cells of Fatah gunmen and Arafat’s office. He facilitated funding of weapons purchases and payments to terrorists. He received briefings about the cells, which told him about terror attacks and the statements in which the Fatah factions claimed responsibility for such actions.
During his interrogations by the Shin Bet, the main portions of which were reported upon here in 2012, he admitted supplying weapons and funds to the terrorist cells, but claimed that he sought to prevent attacks within Israeli territory. “The intifada was supposed to be a popular uprising but things got out of control,” Barghouti told his interrogators.
The Palestinians are not the first or only ones in the world to use horrific terrorism as part of a struggle for national liberation. Jews also used similar methods, to a much more limited extent, in the pre-state era. Israel has talked in the past with convicted terrorists and will likely do so in the future. It’s not inconceivable that it will be necessary to release Barghouti at some point, as even some security figures are already recommending. But this idealization of Barghouti that has been going on is preposterous. There is no reason to portray him as a tortured saint.