April 19, 2017 - Marwan Barghouti and the Fatah prisoner hunger strike

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses Marwan Barghouti's op-ed in the New York Times about the Palestinian prisoners' hunger strike; why only 1,200 of the 6,000 prisoners convicted of terrorist offenses in Israeli jails are participating; the intra-Palestinian tensions at play; Barghouti's point about worsening conditions in Israeli prisons; the accuracy of some of Barghouti's assertions; why Israel can't release Barghouti and negotiate with him; and possible strategic implications of the strike and the background struggle for Palestinian leadership.

 

Q. On Monday, April 17, around 1,200 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails launched a hunger strike. The day before, strike leader Marwan Barghouti published an op-ed in the New York Times explaining the move. How do you address Barghouti’s arguments?

A. Barghouti levels a long list of accusations against Israel’s “illegal system of mass arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment of Palestinian prisoners” and its “inhumane system of colonial and military occupation”. He accuses Israel of “torture, inhumane and degrading treatment, and medical negligence”.

Broadly speaking, and without in any way wishing to belittle or delegitimize the Palestinians’ legitimate struggle for self-determination, I find these blanket claims of illegality and lack of humanity to be demagogic. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank (and until 2007, Gaza) is legal under international law, and its prisons are neither more nor less humane than elsewhere in the world.

It is when Barghouti addresses Israel’s “moral and political failure” and its instituting “a form of judicial apartheid, that provides virtual impunity for Israelis to commit crimes against Palestinians” that I can identify with his accusations. Fifty years of “legal” occupation have deeply corrupted Israel. It’s a pity Barghouti did not apply his considerable intellectual powers to expanding on this element in his article. But he had to accuse Israel of running its prisons illegally and inhumanely because ostensibly this strike is about prison conditions and he had to convince 1,200 of his fellow prisoners to join him.

 

Q. Why only 1,200, when there are around 6,000 Palestinians convicted of terrorist offences in Israeli jails?

A. This gets to the heart of the rationale for the strike. Barghouti is leveraging it to strengthen his leadership position within Fatah, which as the dominant actor in the PLO rules the Palestinian Authority. PLO and PA leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is 82 years old and fading. Recent Fatah elections did not award Barghouti the number two position he aspires to. After 15 years in jail, he apparently fears losing relevance. According to some reports, he has allied himself with Mohammed Dahlan, former Gaza security chief on behalf of Fatah who has fallen out with Abu Mazen, lives in exile in the Emirates and is cultivating ties with Hamas.

That his fellow inmates see the strike this way is attested to by the fact that fully half the Fatah prisoners, all the Hamas prisoners and the more recent arrivals--the non-affiliated “lone wolves” of the current stabbing and car-ramming campaign--have not joined the strike even though they claim to support it in principle.

 

Q. So there are additional intra-Palestinian tensions at play here, more than meets the eye.

A. The strike has to be understood against the backdrop not only of the current Palestinian leadership struggle, but of the severe economic difficulties in Gaza as well. Fatah under Abu Mazen has cut the salaries of Fatah civil servants in Gaza. They have refused to report to work (and been replaced with Hamas loyalists) since Hamas violently took control there in 2007, but for 10 years their salaries helped keep the Gazan economy afloat. In parallel, Fatah-Hamas disputes have caused Fatah to cease subsidizing fuel costs in the Strip, leading Hamas to reduce electricity consumption to six hours a day.

Significantly, these are intra-Palestinian issues not prompted or affected by Israel. We may well see more of them as Abu Mazen fades and the Palestinian leadership struggle plays out domestically.

 

Q. Does Barghouti have a point about worsening conditions?

A. Yes. Israeli authorities took away a number of privileges as a means of pressuring Hamas during the negotiations over the release of Gilad Shalit, the IDF soldier ultimately exchanged for over 1,000 prisoners in 2011. These include the right to university studies by correspondence and aspects of family visits. I see no justification for continuing to deny these rights or for denying the prisoners’ request for pay telephones, which are easily monitored. If indeed these demands are an important aspect of the strike then it is likely that some will be granted as part of an eventual agreement to end the strike.

Since 1969 there have been 20 Palestinian prisoner strikes in Israeli jails. Most ended with compromise agreements regarding conditions of incarceration.

 

Q. Barghouti writes that “As part of Israel’s effort to undermine the Palestinian struggle for freedom, an Israeli court sentenced me to five life sentences and 40 years in prison in a political show trial.” Is this accurate?

A. On Tuesday, on Israel TV news, a senior Fatah official who deals with prisoner affairs claimed that Barghouti had been jailed on trumped-up charges. About five years ago, in a conversation I had with this same official, he acknowledged to me that Barghouti had made the mistake during the second intifada of yielding to pressure from Yasser Arafat to take charge of several terrorist attacks. Those attacks killed five civilians in Tel Aviv. Hence the five life sentences.

Prior to then, Barghouti had always stuck to politics. I met him several times in the 1990s and was impressed. Of course he is free to present himself and his fellow prisoners as patriots and freedom fighters. That is how Palestinian society sees the 600,000 or so Palestinians (Barghouti says 800,000) who have gone through Israeli jails in the course of 50 years of fighting occupation. But for its part, Israeli society sees them as terrorists: many of them, Barghouti included, have engineered or carried out unspeakable acts of violence against Israeli civilians. This is but one of the key polarities dividing us.

 

Q. Why not release Barghouti? Why not negotiate with him? Why is Barghouti not Nelson Mandela? Is it only because Netanyahu is not de Klerk?

A. Any official or even back-channel attempt to negotiate with Barghouti, or for that matter with Hamas, would undermine the official Palestinian leadership under Abu Mazen with which Israel has a treaty-bound obligation to deal exclusively under the Oslo Accords. Even arbitrarily pardoning Barghouti and releasing him would not be welcomed by the Ramallah leadership.

Experience should teach us that meddling in the leadership struggles of a neighboring Arab entity is a bad idea for Israel. Attempts in the 1970s and ‘80s to cultivate non-Fatah clan-based leaders in West Bank cities like Hebron inevitably led to the assassination of those leaders by Fatah. The invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was designed to install a friendly Maronite leadership in power there. That led not only to assassinations (of Bashir Jumayil, by Syria) but Maronite betrayal and an 18-year quagmire that the IDF remembers bitterly to this day. Having learned its lesson, Israel has wisely avoided taking sides in the Syrian tragedy to its north.

Barghouti is not Mandela. Despite all the angry accusations of “apartheid”, Israel is not--or at least not yet--South Africa. Unlike in South Africa, the Palestinians have a free, internationally recognized leadership that has negotiated with reasonable Israeli leaders (Rabin, Peres, Barak, Olmert) and obstinately rejected relatively far-reaching two-state offers. The Palestinian leadership, Barghouti included, still adheres to negotiating demands on core narrative issues like the right of return and the Temple Mount that derive from its concept of Israel as an illegitimate state “born in sin”.  The proposal on the table is still a two-state solution, something never contemplated in South Africa.

Netanyahu most decidedly is not de Klerk. He is leading Israel down a slippery slope toward some sort of conflicted one state entity that could indeed eventually be characterized as apartheid.

 

Q. Could the strike and the background struggle for Palestinian leadership have strategic implications?

A. Abu Mazen is scheduled to meet with President Trump in Washington in early May. To the extent the strike and the Gaza electricity crisis undermine his leadership, the Trump administration may find it all the more difficult to advance or even conceptualize its thus far nebulous agenda on the Palestinian issue.

Further, the longer the strike continues, the more likely it is that the Israeli and international media will publicize the tragedy of growing numbers of dying and force-fed Palestinian prisoners. Arab citizens of Israel may stage demonstrative acts of support. Israel will look bad; Netanyahu will have to justify his government’s actions to the world.

The Netanyahu government already found it necessary to lash out at the New York Times for publishing Barghouti’s op-ed without mentioning the reason for his incarceration. (Symmetry: the Times printed a correction while Barghouti was placed in solitary confinement as punishment for writing the article.) Assuming the strike does not quickly collapse, the government will eventually have to back down from its refusal to negotiate over the prisoners’ demands. The sooner, the better.

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