Analysis: Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike continues

Palestinian political leader Marwan Barghouti announced last week that he was going on hunger strike, accepting only water and salt. Palestinian officials say Barghouti’s health is “dangerously deteriorating” and that he is refusing Israeli medical treatment and food. This dramatic move has garnered the support of 1,000 of his fellow prisoners who are striking alongside him. The strike was announced through an opinion piece in the New York Times, where Barghouti claimed he was striking to improve prison conditions. The op-ed gained plenty of media attention, though perhaps not for the reason that Barghouti wanted: the author’s byline failed to mention that Barghouti is a convicted terrorist, serving five life sentences for his involvement in fatal attacks on Israeli civilians in the second intifada.

Most analysts of Palestinian politics believe Barghouti’s strike has more to do with his declining power in the Palestinian political arena than Israeli prison conditions. The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, has successfully excluded Barghouti’s key political allies from important positions in the Fatah party hierarchy, isolating a figure who was once seen as a potential successor. However, Barghouti’s political significance extends far beyond the upper echelons of the Fatah party hierarchy. He is the most popular Palestinian leader, seen as an authentic voice of Palestinian nationalism who frequently wins hypothetical presidential election polling. Thus this hunger strike is seen by many as “a risky bid for political relevance” as Barghouti tries to re-establish his prominence and send a message to his party rivals. The length of this hunger strike may, therefore, depend as much on how his protest is received by the Palestinian public, as it does on negotiations with Israel on prisoner conditions.

Barghouti’s New York Times byline, later amended to note the reason for his imprisonment, triggered fierce debate. Many American Jewish leaders and Israeli officials were aghast at the whitewashing of Barghouti’s crimes. In response, many pro-Palestinian activists argued that Barghouti is a Palestinian moderate and a Mandela-like figure: a believer in the two-state solution who, if freed by Israel, could lead his people to peace.  Yet this reaction inflamed tensions even further, as Israelis argued that a man with Barghouti’s bloody past could never be a peacemaker, and that the possibility for peace was low if Barghouti is considered a representative of Palestinian moderation. Furthermore, the disregarding of Barghouti’s crimes was seen as part of a wider pattern of blindness towards Palestinian violence by the Palestinian solidarity movement and its supporters in the west.

This speaks to a larger debate in Israel over whether or not there is a Palestinian partner for peace. The Israeli peace camp has previously flirted with the idea of releasing Barghouti as a major step towards a comprehensive agreement. The historical precedent here is not Mandela but Martin McGuinness: Israeli peaceniks hope that Barghouti could carry public opinion in favour of a pragmatic peace, if not an ideological one, and convince Palestinians that it is in their interests to give up political violence. However, as Barghouti’s supporters themselves acknowledge, he believes in a combination of negotiations and armed struggle against Israel. Though they claim he now opposes violence against civilians, preferring attacks against Israeli soldiers instead, this caveat will make no difference to Israelis who want a peace agreement that will end violence in the region once and for all.