Analysis

Israel Averts One Crisis With End of Palestinian Prisoners' Hunger Strike. Now Gaza Looms Large

Strike leader Marwan Barghouti can chalk up achievement of putting prisoners' plight back in Palestinian public consciousness

A Palestinian protester using a slingshot to hurl stones toward Israeli troops during clashes near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, May 26, 2017.
IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS

The announcement heralding the end of the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike on Friday night was met with a sigh of relief by Israel’s defense establishment.

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The strike’s end, on the eve of Ramadan, removed a huge risk that had been lingering for the past six weeks: the potential for deterioration following the death of one of the prisoners, or an Israeli attempt to force-feed the strikers, both of which would have agitated Palestinians across the territories.

The gap in the conflicting commentaries from both sides regarding the details of the agreement and the question of who won are inevitable, given the circumstances. Israel doesn’t want to admit it negotiated with the strike leaders – and certainly not that it made any concessions while members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet were competing with each other in their forceful declarations against the prisoners.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, have to present any Israeli concessions, no matter how trivial, as an achievement – otherwise questions will be raised about why the lives of prisoners were put at risk and whether the demands met actually justified everything the prisoners sacrificed.

A mural of Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti on a section of the West Bank separation barrier, May 27, 2017.
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

Despite Israel’s denials, it’s clear that talks were held with the strike leaders, at least indirectly. Two weeks ago, Palestinian sources reported meetings between senior officials in the Palestinian Authority’s security apparatus and Israel’s Shin Bet security service, with the aim of ending the strike.

The details of any arrangement that would induce the prisoners to call off their strike were crystal clear: The key issue for them was the restoration of family visits to the previous number – twice a month. The Red Cross had halved this a year ago. An agreement on this matter was reached on Friday.

The other demands were extras. The strike leaders knew that given the current public mood in Israel, the cabinet or prison authorities would not allow the resumption of academic studies – certainly not as long as the bodies of two Israeli soldiers are being held in Gaza and two Israeli citizens are missing there.

An improvement in specific prison conditions – an issue that isn’t a focus of media attention – can be agreed upon later. Israel ensured this would happen at a later date and wouldn’t be seen as a direct achievement of the hunger strike.

The strike’s leaders were already handicapped by the limited response of Fatah members to join the strike. Jailed Hamas leaders didn’t take a stand, either, failing to instruct most Hamas members to join in. Outside the prison walls, senior PA officials tried to undermine the strike, fearing it would strengthen the status of senior Fatah prisoner (and strike leader) Marwan Barghouti.

The latter can chalk up an achievement from the strike, though: it brought the prisoners’ plight to the forefront of the Palestinian agenda, and he is once more being seriously mentioned as a possible successor to President Mahmoud Abbas.

In Israel, the sting operation in which the Israel Prison Service planted snacks in Barghouti’s cell, and recorded him eating them, served as a rich source of satire. On the Palestinian side, though, it only strengthened his image as a leader who is feared by Israel – which resorts to ugly tricks in order to trip him up. However, Barghouti still faces an internal challenge from fellow Fatah leaders, who were likely unimpressed by the fact he fell into this trap twice.

The strike’s end resolves one Israeli headache, but two others remain in the Palestinian arena: that the religious fervor associated with Ramadan will find an outlet in the form of “lone-wolf” stabbing or car-ramming attacks, as it did last year; and the deteriorating conditions in the Gaza Strip.

In the monthly report submitted to the UN Security Council on Friday by Nickolay Mladenov, the UN secretary-general’s special envoy to the Middle East wrote: “In Gaza we are walking into another crisis with our eyes wide open.”

Mladenov warned the Security Council that if urgent steps are not taken to de-escalate matters, “the crisis risks spiraling out of control with devastating consequences for Palestinians and Israelis alike.”

Mladenov reminded the Security Council that the source of the deterioration, with a reduced power supply and cuts to PA employees’ salaries in the Strip, is the political conflict between the Fatah-run PA and Hamas. Most residents in Gaza now receive electricity for only four hours a day, and this might be reduced to two hours, with the humanitarian crisis worsening. No one is interested in a military confrontation, Mladenov told Security Council members, adding that the PA, Hamas and Israel all share responsibility to prevent one.