Nearly 2,900 Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel and affiliated with Fatah are threatening to launch a hunger strike in two weeks if their demands are not met. If implemented, this will be a bad omen for the already tense balance of forces between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas regime in Gaza.
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But like the lone rockets that get fired at the Negev from Gaza every few weeks, this hunger strike has a double purpose. Outwardly, its a defiant move against Israel. But inwardly, it seems there is a different, perhaps more important reason: To restore the status of Marwan Barghouti, the senior Fatah prisoner who hopes to succeed current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Barghouti, who is being held in Hadarim Prison in central Israel, is behind the process that is meant to lead to a hunger strike by security prisoners on April 17. On the eve of elections for the Fatah Executive Committee last December, there were some who marked Barghouti as the potential big winner. But that didnt happen, as Abbas succeeded in pushing most of the people identified with Barghouti off the election list. The launching of a well-publicized move from within the prisons could restore Barghoutis status in the territories and mark him once more as a potential successor to Abbas – even though the 82-year-old PA president isnt showing any signs of stepping down.
The fate of more than 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israel, whose number has grown considerably in the past 18 months due to the wave of stabbing and car-ramming attacks (the lone-wolf intifada), affects nearly every family in the territories. A hunger strike, if it is widely observed and well managed, could immediately turn up the heat in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. If down the road a threat to the strikers lives develops, it could lead to another wave of violence.
The opening shot in the violent summer of 2014 was the kidnap-murder of three Israeli teenagers in Gush Etzion. The kidnappers – Hamas operatives from Hebron – decided to act after attending a solidarity demonstration for several dozen members of the group on hunger strike in Israeli prisons. Due to that precedent, along with other cases in the decades-long struggle in the territories, a hunger strike is considered by both sides to be an extremely sensitive matter, requiring the close attention of the political and military leadership.
At this stage, though, it doesnt look like Barghoutis plans are fully formed. A hunger strike was raised as an option six months ago, when the demands by prisoners were first issued. Barghouti also tried to coordinate his moves with Hamas prisoner leadership, but it kept giving him conflicting responses. At this point, it seems that only Hamas prisoners in Hadarim Prison will join the hunger strike. Hamas leaders in other prisons are more hesitant and are yet to announce their participation.
The April 17 date was chosen with an eye on the start of Ramadan, which is toward the end of May. A full hunger strike during Ramadan, when Palestinians fast by day and break their fasts at night, could be religiously problematic. Setting a potential strike period of a little over a month will allow the struggle against Israel to escalate, but also limits it in time so as to prevent a total loss of control.
Barghouti and Fatah members have made far-reaching demands compared to previous struggles. Not only are the prisoners demanding rights that were retracted in the past, but also new concessions – including the installation of a public phone on every wing; more frequent family visits; and permission to be photographed with their families when they visit.
At this stage, the chances of the Israel Prison Service meeting these demands look slim. The refusal will come with a security explanation (Israel doesnt want widespread communication between prisoners and residents of the territories), but theres also a political context. The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesnt want to appear as if its capitulating to Palestinian pressure. Whats more, Prison Service rules state that a prisoner who refuses his meals is committing a disciplinary offense, which could lead to denial of privileges.
In the past, there have been several cases of hunger strikes that were canceled, or that didnt really take off or arouse interest outside the prison walls. But if Barghouti is determined to conduct a high-profile confrontation with Israel, he will probably get his wish.