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Why Palestinian hunger strike may be destined to fail

Many Palestinian prisoners in Israel have hesitated to join the hunger strike championed by Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti because they doubt Barghouti is motivated by concern for their welfare.

After three days of a hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails initiated and led by the most senior Fatah inmate, Marwan Barghouti, Israel and Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders are convinced it will all be much ado about nothing. They believe that as the days go by and Barghouti realizes that he does not enjoy sweeping support, the strike will fizzle.

With the March 24 declaration of the planned strike, Israeli authorities feared that all 3,500 prisoners affiliated with Fatah, who constitute more than half the 6,000 Palestinians jailed in Israel for security-related offenses, might heed Barghouti’s call. According to figures compiled by the Israel Prison Service (IPS), 1,187 inmates are refusing food. So it now appears that only some 800 Fatah prisoners have followed Barghouti’s lead, and some 400 prisoners affiliated with Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine have joined them.

According to an IPS source who spoke with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, many of the prisoners who joined the strike did so unwillingly and are therefore highly unlikely to persevere. He called their strike “light,” meaning they had gone along with it, but the chances of their sustaining it are nil.

“We’re not talking here about prisoners with serious stamina and personal discipline, as we saw with the administrative prisoners [who are detained without trial] who persevered with a 2012 hunger strike for 100 days or more, jeopardizing their lives,” said the source. Many of the current striking prisoners were dragged into the strike against their will, for fear that Barghouti and his people would see them as scabs, he asserted.

In fact, the very prisoners who are considered the “strongest,” those who have gained a status of respect during their years in detention, decided in advance that the strike was doomed to fail and opted not to take part. “At the end of the day, you can see that most of the Palestinian prisoners decided to remain out of the strikers’ circle. They understood that those who initiated it had gone a few steps too far,” said the IPS source.

This is not the only reason the strike is destined to fail. The group of so-called Palestinian security prisoners is not unified or united around one leadership despite the image some try to convey. The political divisions that plague the Palestinian public, and the tensions among the various factions within Fatah, the largest of the movements, are mirrored in the Palestinian prison population. One group backs the leadership of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and just as big a group prefers former Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan as its leader. Barghouti’s group of supporters is actually the smallest. Most of the Palestinian prisoners have never met Barghouti in jail and are unlikely to regard him as a leader who commands blind loyalty.

In addition, a large group of prisoners suspects that the goals Barghouti established do not justify a mass hunger strike — it is unlikely to result in improved prison conditions — and believe that its main purpose is to fortify Barghouti’s diminished powers and standing among the Palestinian public. At a Fatah Executive Council meeting in Bethlehem in February, Barghouti, who envisions himself as Abbas’ successor, was not elected Abbas' deputy, and other candidates identified as Barghouti supporters were sidelined, denied key positions in the movement.

A senior Fatah source told Al-Monitor that the success of the prisoners’ strike hinges on mass support on the outside. “Without giant rallies, the prisoners will lose heart and will fail to force the Israelis to accept their ultimatum,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Palestinian source also said that Abbas and senior PA officials will not allow the hunger strike to affect public life or authorize mass rallies and demonstrations that will disrupt public order. Abbas allowed a large protest to mark Prisoners Day on April 17, which was also the day the hunger strike began. Still, as long as the strikers persist, they will not get the support and encouragement of the PA leadership. Steps will be taken to ensure only a “measured level of support,” said the source.

Abbas does not want the strike to get out of control, and more than that, he does not want Barghouti to emerge strengthened. According to the Fatah source, at this time Abbas is not interested in a “tense, violent” atmosphere, as he is focused on diplomatic issues, including a visit with US President Donald Trump at the beginning of May in Washington. That meeting requires optimal conditions. The Palestinian security forces have therefore been ordered to allow only modest demonstrations in support of the hunger strike in the West Bank and to prevent major ones that might get out of control. They are also to forcibly prevent clashes with Israeli troops, which could result in the kind of deteriorating situation that Abbas wants to avoid.

Barghouti, said the source, climbed a very high tree and may well discover within a few days that he faces two obstacles that will prevent him from bending the Israelis to his will and achieving the glory he desires. One is the lack of enthusiasm among Fatah prisoners, who probably fear their conditions will actually deteriorate. The other, more significant hurdle is the lack of broad support among the Palestinian public for the hunger strike, even though the issue of Palestinians jailed by Israel is usually a unifying force within the society.

It appears that Barghouti has not realized that times have changed during his 15 years in prison. In the days of the second intifada — between 2000 and 2005 — many young Palestinians looked up to him, when he was leader of the Tanzim — Fatah's paramilitary wing — and led large demonstrations that turned into violent clashes with Israeli troops. Now, however, Fatah leaders and grassroots activists are no longer idols. Many Palestinians doubt the intentions of their politicians. Young people who never knew Barghouti in his glory days do not believe him to be motivated by a desire to improve the conditions for his fellow inmates but more so by a desire to strengthen his standing ahead of the battle for Abbas’ succession.

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