Analysis

What the Palestinian Prisoners in Israel Actually Achieved With the Hunger Strike

Israel doesn't like to use the term ‘negotiations,’ but ultimately it was forced to deal with Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti in order to conclude the strike

Palestinians celebrating after Palestinian prisoners ended a hunger strike over their conditions in Israeli jails, Ramallah, May 27, 2017.
MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS

The hunger strike by Palestinians in Israeli jails – which ended late on Friday night, 40 days after it began, and in time for Ramadan – could represent a victory for the prisoners.

The Israel Prison Service says the strike ended without any negotiations, and that the clause that was agreed upon was the renewal of a second monthly visit for prisoners, funded by the Palestinian Authority and in coordination with the International Committee of the Red Cross. This is seemingly a technical issue and doesn’t constitute any achievement, but in reality the prisoners succeeded in setting the agenda.

The protests, marches and Palestinian actions, which included serious clashes with Israeli soldiers at demonstrations in the West Bank, also showed that the prisoners’ issue is at the heart of the Palestinian consensus.

Among other things, the protesters sent a message that the prisoners’ status cannot be ignored – particularly that of strike leader and leading Fatah figure Marwan Barghouti.

As the strike progressed, it increasingly came to dominate the Palestinian public agenda. Even U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to Bethlehem last Tuesday was unable to remove the issue from the headlines. President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership were also unable to ignore the hot potato that rolled under their door, and they said the continuation of the strike was meant to ignite the situation on the ground. Messages of this kind were sent to the Americans, Arab countries and other international figures.

The Palestinians say that, in fact, there were negotiations between the Shin Bet security service, Palestinian intelligence officials and prisoners’ representatives. According to them, the Prison Service played the role of an operational body that does not establish policy. The Palestinians noted that in the meetings, the sides discussed the reinstatement of previous benefits – such as allowing studies, watching various television stations and a general improvement in jail conditions. While the matter was discussed, it remains unclear if understandings were reached regarding the placement of supervised pay phones in the prison wings.

Palestinians celebrating after Palestinian prisoners ended a hunger strike over their conditions in Israeli jails, Ramallah, May 27, 2017.
MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS

The Palestinians are treating the existence of the meetings as a recognized fact. The PA even said Abbas’ meeting with U.S. envoy Jason Greenblatt last Thursday focused on the prisoner issue. According to them, Greenblatt traveled to Jerusalem after the meeting to push for a solution to the strike. The Shin Bet and Public Security Ministry don’t like to use the term “negotiations,” but ultimately they had to connect with Barghouti in order to conclude the strike.

The Palestinian prisoners’ directorate has treated the end of the strike as a big victory for the prisoners. As of now, it is difficult to establish if the use of such phrases is justified. Only time will tell if the prisoners’ demands were actually addressed.

At the beginning of the strike in April, Israel tried to break it by minimizing its importance and scope. Israel opened negotiations with each prison separately and conducted the “theoretical exercise” for Barghouti, which achieved exactly the opposite of its goal: The strike was strengthened and leaders of other factions, including Hamas, joined the strike.

The issue was picked up by the international media, and as more and more prisoners were hospitalized to receive medical care, Israel understood there was no choice but to bring the strike to an end.