As many as 1,500 Palestinian security prisoners marked a second day of a hunger strike Tuesday in what promises to be a protracted battle of wills with Prisons Service authorities. At the heart of the strike is Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader serving five life sentences plus 40 years for his role in the murdering and wounding of Israelis, who called it for the stated goals of improving prisoner conditions and ending administrative detentions.
The key question to which there is no easy answer is to what extent are the reasons for the strike to be taken at face value and to what extent is the action a reflection of the ambitions and interests of Barghouti. The same ambiguity hung over his role in the period following the outbreak of the second intifada in October 2000, when he emerged at the forefront of the unrest as an organizer and firebrand spokesman.
His role in the second intifada and his imprisonment over the last 15 years have turned him into the most popular Palestinian leader, someone who would likely defeat PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniye if elections were held today.
The striking prisoners, mostly from Fatah, are exposing themselves to harm, much as did the youths attacking Israeli checkpoints in 2000. This time, however, Barghouti is physically leading the charge and, if he sustains the strike, may be putting his own life on the line.
Barghouti spelled out his reasons for the strike in an op-ed published in The New York Times on Monday. “Palestinian prisoners and detainees have suffered from torture, inhumane and degrading treatment and medical negligence,” he wrote.
Some have died while in detention.
According to the latest count from the Palestinian Prisoner Club, some 200 Palestinian prisoners have died in prison since 1967. Palestinian prisoners and their families also remain a primary target of Israel’s deterrent policy of imposing collective punishment.”
“Through our hunger strike we seek an end to these abuses,” he wrote. Kadoura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners Club, elaborated some of the demands in remarks to The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. He said that due to a restrictive policy adopted at the height of the second intifada, thousands of first-degree relatives are being denied prisoner visits on security grounds, including parents of prisoners in their seventies and eighties.
The prisoners want visitation rights expanded. There are health concerns, with prisoners waiting for years for operations and diagnosis being a protracted matter, he says. Prisoners are also demanding the installation of public phones, which Fares says could still be monitored and tapped by prison authorities.
Another demand is to reinstate study programs for matriculation exams and correspondence courses.
The Prisons Service denies charges that security prisoners are mistreated.
It seems that some of these demands would actually not be that difficult to meet and that authorities could yield to them rather than face a possible wave of violence in the West Bank and international scrutiny that would come if prisoners lives become endangered or if they die. On the other hand, authorities will want to avoid an appearance of having lost or caved in to the strikers.
Those who believe the strike should be taken at face value and is not a Barghouti gambit for ulterior motives note that Barghouti is already the most popular Palestinian leader and say he does not need a strike to catapult him into that status.
“I think the main motive is the basic demands they raise. Israeli attempts to accuse them of a political agenda is a way of diverting attention from their legitimate demands,” says Ghassan Khatib, vice president of Bir Zeit University near Ramallah.
But there is no denying that the strike, especially if it forces Israeli authorities to back down, will further enhance Barghouti’s popularity. The contrast between Barghouti actively opposing the authorities and casting himself at the forefront of a struggle against oppression and Abbas’s perceived passivity in the face of Israeli rule is unlikely to be lost on the public.
If the strike is successful, it could also raise Fatah’s standing in its rivalry with Hamas, which has taken an ambivalent posture toward it because it is a Fatah initiative.
The strike also promises to put the Palestinian cause back on the regional and international agenda, where it has taken a back seat over the past six years due to the Arab Spring and the internal fighting in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen, according to Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at al-Azhar University in Gaza. “If it goes on for a long time and if anyone dies, it will definitely bring more sympathy and support for the Palestinian cause,” he said.
Abusada does not believe Barghouti has called the strike to improve his standing, but he does predict that could be the result of it. “No question he will succeed in gaining more privileges if he’s able to stay alive and he’ll definitely be much more popular and much more credible among Palestinians.”