It was unfortunate product placement that unleashed an avalanche of snark. Marwan Barghouti, one of the leaders of the hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jail, was caught on tape by Israeli authorities stealthily eating in his cell. His furtive snacking was then broadcast around the world by the Israel Prison Service on Sunday in order to undermine his leadership.
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The prison service said Barghouti, who is serving multiple life sentences for his role in the killing of Israelis during the second intifada, has been filmed eating twice since the strike began. On April 27, Barghouti is seen eating cookies and a few days later, on May 5, the prisoner is seen snacking on a candy bar. The prison service didn’t say how Barghouti obtained the food, but sources in the organization confirmed that they set him up in an attempt to see whether the prisoner was really sticking to the hunger strike.
The candy bar that Barghouti is seen wolfing down was clearly identifiable to any Israeli by its shiny green wrapper. It was Tortit, the Israeli chocolate-coated waffle with thin layers of almond cream, which has been on the market since 1975. The non-dairy snack, popular with vegans, is a familiar and nostalgic brand with a retro image – like Snickers in the United States.
On Israeli social media, reactions to the recordings posed a pathetic demonstration of the superficial and cold-blooded nature of internet culture. The recordings could have triggered a discussion about the implications of the prisoners’ three-week-old hunger strike; or the political fallout of Barghouti being caught indulging; or what it says about the morality of a state that wields its control over a prisoner to tempt him and then record him succumbing to the temptation in order to score political points. Instead, the focus was on the candy.
As soon as the Tortit was spotted, Hebrew-speaking accounts on Twitter and Facebook exploded with sarcastic, mean-spirited posts, memes and jokes about the candy bar: “You can’t count that as eating because Tortit isn’t really food,” one person wrote, with another adding, “if it were between dying and having to eat a Tortit, I think I’d rather die.”
Others photoshopped images of Barghouti in heroic poses with the snack.
Another tweet featured the text "The new campaign. I'll have two Tortit," accompanied by a photo of a prisoner flashing the victory sign with the candy bar photoshopped on the image.
Right-wing social media users celebrated what they saw as the prison service’s clever exposure of Barghouti’s true character.
Several people paired images of the candy bar with bottles and cans of Coke in a reference to the recent report that Israel’s Coca-Cola franchise donated thousands of dollars to the left-wing bashing group In Tirtzu in 2015.
“A great Monday morning Mediterranean breakfast,” right-wing Army Radio talk show host Erel Segal wrote under a photo of him with a Tortit in his mouth and a bottle of Coca-Cola standing in front of him on a table.
Other users, however, were disgusted by the prison service’s choice of tactic, not its choice of snack, calling the move “shameful” and “embarrassing.” One person tweeted, “Israel investing in a candy bar as a weapon only proves that Israel lacks real tools to deal with prisoner hunger strikes.”
Many were particularly critical of the public preening by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who went on a media blitz after the tape’s release. Erdan took credit for the recording and emphasized its use in destroying Barghouti’s image as a brave leader. “Gilad Erdan is preening over ‘Operation Tortit’ as if it was the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor,” one tweet read.
As the video of Barghouti eating bears no time stamp, it is unclear when it was filmed. The release of the video, however, does appear to be carefully timed. It hit the airwaves and the Internet on the same day the 1,200 hunger-striking prisoners called on the World Health Organization and other bodies to intervene to prevent Israeli authorities from force-feeding them.
Before the tape’s release, former Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss and Gregory III Laham, patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, had announced separately they would stage a one-day hunger strike in solidarity with the prisoners. The outing of the recording also followed a demand by the prison service that Barghouti’s attorney forgo representation of any other prisoners who are hunger striking in order to meet with Barghouti. The strikers, who have been refusing anything but salt and water since April 17, are demanding additional privileges, including more public telephones on prison cell blocks and additional family visits.
Barghouti, who was sentenced in 2004 to five life sentences after being convicted of murder, wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times in April that caused widespread backlash in Israel and among the country's supporters. In the bio accompanying the piece, Barghouti was described as a "Palestinian leader and parliamentarian." After the criticism, the paper added an editor's note to the opinion piece explaining the reason for Barghouti's incarceration.