By Peter J. Harbert
By Peter J. Harbert
Rabat – The hunger strike being carried out by Palestinian prisoners in Israel is nearing its fourth week. After years of poor conditions and the continuation of Israel’s detention of Palestinians without trial, many prisoners began a hunger strike on April 17, led by Marwan Barghouti.
Barghouti is a leader of the Palestinian Fatah, a Palestinian nationalist party in control of politics in the West Bank. Many Palestinians consider Barghouti a great leader, but he is considered a terrorist by the Israeli government for his involvement with militant groups in the region.
He was an initiator of the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. His participation got him arrested and sentenced in 2004 to multiple life terms.
The prisoners are striking to bring greater attention to their lack of rights and bad conditions in the prisons, but they are also calling for greater benefits, such as improved medical care and a cessation of solitary confinement as punishment. Barghouti is currently being confined in isolation.
To prevent the prisoners from dying, they are being provided salt and water, but if their demands go unmet, Barghouti and his son, Qassam, claim that Israel will have to deal with the consequences of their worsening condition.
Protests have mounted across the West Bank which and have been met with resistance by the Israel Defence. The issue has not yet led to bloodshed, but there are threats and concerns that tensions will escalate if the strike continues and prisoner demands are not met.
Israel has refuted the claims of sub-par conditions in its prisons and has pointed to the fact that its prison standards meet international law. The prison has released unverified footage of Marwan Barghouti receiving meals on two separate occasions during the strikes. Israeli leaders are speaking out against the strike as a political move not founded on bad conditions, but as an attempt to ensure Barghouti’s place as the successor to current Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas.
Fadwa, wife of Barghouti, has denounced the video as either fabricated or taken some time since his sentencing in 2004, but before the hunger strike commenced. The identity of Barghouti in the video has not been verified, nor has it been proven that the subject in the video actually eats.
Mahmoud Abbas has called for Israel to act before the situation in the prison deteriorates so that the conditions on the ground do not worsen. He has further called for the “humanitarian demands” to be met before the situation is complicated further. It is essential for peace in the region that a solution be found before the prisoners suffer more or protests in support of the striking prisoners turn violent.
There have been charges, however, that Abbas’s support for the strike is simply a public veneer and that, behind the scenes, he is secretly moving to bring it to an end as quickly as possible. According to award-winning journalist, Jonathan Cook, “Reports… revealed he had urged Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to intercede with America and Israel to help.”
As with all politically charged prison hunger strikes, such as the infamous strike led by IRA member, Bobby Sands, in 1981, they have a tendency to reach far beyond the prison barriers and out into the population at large. For many Palestinian supporters, Barghouti is their version of Nelson Mandela. His position as the strike’s leader is making him a figure who is impossible to ignore on an international level. Many critics fear that a prolonged strike will only serve to increase the chance for violence to spill out in Palestinian territory.
Israel’s security minister, Gilad Erdan, has claimed that Barghouti is merely exploiting the strike for his own ends. “This strike was never about the conditions of the convicted terrorist – their conditions meet international standards and law,” he said. “It is only about Marwan Barghouti’s desire to gain political power and position himself to replace Abu Mazen.” He concluded by saying that “Israel will not give in to extortion and pressure from terrorists.”
In an interview with Sky News, however, Barghouti’s son, Qassam, said that “When it comes to the prisoners issue there is no time-there’s no time for anybody to wait while we are talking.”
He added that, “Now, any minute, we can hear the news that one of the prisoners might just pass out and that’s it – and after that who can control the Palestinian people?”