After 40 days and 40 nights of fasting, the Palestinian prisoner hunger strike came to an end just before dawn on Saturday — not coincidentally, just before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The announcement was accompanied by impassioned proclamations in the Palestinian media of “a great victory” for the prisoners and by strike leader Marwan Barghouti.
While they now dispute the terms on which the strike was ended, all sides involved — Barghouti, the Israel Prisons Service and even the Palestinian Authority — can claim significant achievements. But the key victor is Barghouti, who has again firmly established himself as a favorite of the Palestinian public and, in their eyes, a natural successor to PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
Barghouti, a Fatah political leader and terror chief who is serving five life sentences for murders committed during the second Palestinian intifada, was the focal point of this strike. He initiated it, he was the one filmed eating a candy bar by the prison authorities, and he has emerged from it as a Palestinian national symbol.
Barghouti began the strike with 1,150 of his Fatah comrades (about one-third of the total Fatah prisoners and one-sixth of all the security inmates) pushing a long list of demands from Israel: 20 channels of television, unrestricted books and magazines, air conditioning, a greater selection of items available for purchase in the canteen, more family visits, the restarting of open university studies, public telephone use, annual medical checks for prisoners, and an end to punitive solitary confinement.
The strike is ending with just one of those demands met, the restoration of a second monthly family visit — a move that is not even connected to Israel as it was stopped a year ago by the International Committee of the Red Cross, who said family members were not showing up and it did not have the budget for the program. Indeed, it is only possible to restore the visits now because the PA has offered to fund them.
In doing so, the PA handed Barghouti and the other prisoners a justification for ending the strike that, after 40 days, was starting to enter a highly dangerous phase, with 30 inmates said hospitalized.
But for Barghouti, the strike was never about actual prison conditions.
He launched the strike in part due to his deteriorating political standing in Fatah. After recent internal elections for the Fatah Central Committee where he finished first, his colleagues outside prison forgot about him and made sure he did not get a senior post, like deputy chairman. Barghouti understood that Abbas and the other central committee members were trying to isolate him from the Palestinian public and Fatah supporters. To counter this, he came up with the idea of leading a hunger strike to protest the conditions of the Palestinian security prisoners, an issue of almost complete consensus among the Palestinians.
Fatah prisoners in Israel had not led a prison hunger strike in 13 years, so this effort won support and made headlines in the Palestinian media from the outset, also garnering the reluctant support of other Fatah leaders. The other major power among the prisoners, the terror group Hamas — which did not take part in the strike — was forced again and again to offer public support for the “just struggle” of the prisoners.
Barghouti did not achieve all his goals, and suffered several failures along the way. First, the vast majority of the 6,500 prisoners, from Fatah and Hamas, did not join the strike. Power struggles between the groups and internal conflicts within Fatah prevented this from being an even bigger story. Sources close to Barghouti said that his rivals used prison leaders to convince the strikers to give up. By the end, 834 prisoners remained on strike.
Second, Barghouti had limited success in mobilizing the Palestinian public. While thousands took part in various protests, and there were sporadic solidarity strikes and a rise in clashes with Israeli and Palestinian forces, massive protests did not sweep the West Bank. This was partly because Abbas’s PA security forces made a considerable effort to prevent greater confrontations with Israeli forces; as a consequence, at the end of the 40 days, the West Bank is significantly more tense than before.
But Palestinian media has been ceaselessly singing Barghouti’s praises. His picture is once again on display in every village, town and refugee camp. His name is now familiar even to those who were born after he went to jail for his role in leading the Second Palestinian Intifada and his five murder convictions.
For many of them, and however unpalatable to many in Israel, he is the Palestinian Nelson Mandela and, more practically, their next leader after Abbas.
And what about the Israel Prisons Service? It can argue, and justifiably so, that it did not give into any of the prisoners’ demands. It had noticeable success in preventing the strike from spiraling out of control and becoming a mass movement. Striking prisoners were moved around and put in solitary confinement; medical centers were set up in the prisons to deal with the health issues that came up.
However, it also made one or two significant blunders, the main one being planting a “Tortit” chocolate wafer in Barghouti’s cell and filming him eating it.
Barghouti was in solitary confinement, almost forgotten by the world, when Israel released the video, bringing him back to the forefront of attention. Aiming to discredit Barghouti, the prisons service made him look like a victim, which garnered more sympathy for him, especially in the West Bank where his reputation only grew stronger.
A second mistake was refusing to negotiate with Barghouti. Fearing that this would strengthen his standing, officials missed the bigger picture and ended up drawing out the hunger strike unnecessarily.
It should be noted that the prisons service still denies negotiating at all with Barghouti, even in the last few days, and stresses that the only concession the Palestinians achieved — the extra monthly family visit — was not from Israel but the Red Cross.
However, someone in the prisons service decided to transfer all the strike leaders, including Barghouti, to Ashkelon prison in order to allow them to meet and facilitate the end of the strike. Bringing Barghouti there was de facto recognition of how big a deal this strike had become, and of the need to end it as soon as possible.
So maybe Israel can say “we did not negotiate with Barghouti,” but Israel brought him to Ashkelon and, once he was there, let him handle the talks on ending the strike. And it must be asked whether this could not have been done sooner to calm tensions inside and outside the prisons.
Finally, what of the Palestinian Authority, which agreed to pay for the costs of the family visits and in doing so tried to show the Palestinian public how much it cares for the prisoners? Hamas did not support the strike and has failed to gain any advantage for the prisoners, so on that account the PA can be satisfied.
In fact, the PA made a genuine, concerted effort to bring a speedy end to the strike. This was not only out of concern for the welfare of the prisoners, however, but also because the PA and Fatah understood that with each passing day, tensions in the West Bank continued to rise almost as fast as the standing of Marwan Barghouti.