The ongoing Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike is rooted in a Palestinian political context, as much as it is in Israeli oppression and violations of international law.
The most obvious of such Israeli violations is that majority of the 6,500 Palestinian prisoners are deported and held inside Israel, in flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
These prisoners have adopted a deliberate and compelling means to fight back - through a hunger strike, in order to raise international awareness of their cause and their suffering, and to mobilize Palestinians and international solidarity to pressure the Israeli government to improve conditions inside its prisons.
But there is another context that is equally important. The hunger strike, and the public mobilization that has thus far unified Palestinians from all backgrounds, is largely championed by a branch of Fatah that has been purposely sidelined for years.
Leading the hunger strike is Marwan Barghouti, who is, by far the more popular figure within Fatah than its current leader, the aging Mahmoud Abbas.
Despite being president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Abbas’ reign is characterized by expired mandates and little popularity. In fact, his leadership has been largely predicated on several pillars: US-Western funding, ‘security coordination’ with Israel and Arab backing.
The reality is that the Palestinian people have rarely ever been a focal point within Abbas’ political equation.
However, now over 80-years-old, Abbas is desperate to ensure that the future of the party will continue to favor his brand of politics and sideline his rivals. These include not only the Hamas movement, but also the Barghouti-led branch of Fatah.
Fear of mobilization
Fissures within Palestinian society are numerous and complex. Historically, only popular uprisings have brought Palestinians together. But such uprisings have also posed dual threats to those content with the status quo.
The status quo is bleak for most, but not all Palestinians. Some had benefitted, becoming wealthy after the Oslo Accords was signed. The PA is itself a direct outcome of Oslo, and can only survive as long as the Oslo ‘wisdom’ – ‘peace process’, ‘two-state solution,’ and so on – prevails.
Money corrupts, and the top Fatah echelon have been inundated with funds even long before the ‘peace process’ was initiated in the early 1990s.
In contrast, Hamas, who for long challenged Oslo, is itself struggling. Like the Fatah Party in the West Bank, it is being pushed out of the trenches into the corridors of ‘state building’, despite being stateless and without any real territorial sovereignty, while under occupation and under siege.
The reality is that Fatah itself had never recovered from its post-Oslo breakdown and the hurried rearranging of the party, its values, cadres and vision.
Meanwhile, majority of Palestinians are suffering; they see no political horizon; they are getting poorer and jobs are harder to come by; the Israeli occupation is more enriched; the Arabs are too pre-occupied with their own wars and conflicts; and the Palestinian leaderships are busy squabbling over meaningless titles, money and hallow prestige.
Prison within prison
Gaza is the world’s largest open air prison. The West Bank is a prison, too, segmented into various wards known as areas A, B and C. In fact, all Palestinians are subjected to varied degrees of military restrictions. At some level, they are all prisoners.
East Jerusalem is cut off from the West Bank, and those within the West Bank are themselves separated from each other.
Palestinians in Israel are treated slightly better than their brethren in the Occupied Territories, but still subsist in degrading conditions compared to the first-class status given to Israeli Jews, purely on the basis of their ethnicity.
That is why the issue of prisoners is a very sensitive one for Palestinians – being a literal as well as metaphorical representation of all that Palestinians have in common, and the various facets that characterize the vey meaning of a Palestinian existence.
Mass mobilization has always scared Abbas and the PA. It is too dangerous for them, because popular action often challenges the established status quo, and could hinder his Israeli-sanctioned rule over occupied Palestinians.Dr. Ramzy Baroud
In fact, the protests igniting across the Occupied Territories to support 1,500 hunger strikers are not merely an act of 'solidarity' with the incarcerated and abused men and women who are demanding improvements to their conditions.
They are, in essence, protests against the very reality of Palestinian life – an Israeli created status quo.
The prisoners held captive in Israeli jails are a depiction of the life of every Palestinian, trapped behind walls, checkpoints, in refugee camps, in Gaza, in cantons in the West Bank, segregated Jerusalem, waiting to be let in, waiting to be let out. Simply waiting.
The 6,500 prisoners in Israeli jails include hundreds of children, women, elected officials, journalists and administrative detainees, who are held with no charges, no due process. Yet, these numbers hardly convey the reality that has transpired under Israeli occupation since 1967.
According to prisoners' rights group, ‘Addameer’, more than 800,000 Palestinians have been imprisoned under military rule since Israel commenced its occupation of Palestinian territories in June 1967.
That is 40 percent of the entire male population of the Occupied Territories. Israeli jails are, therefore prisons within larger prisons.
The special Palestinians
The sad reality of the Palestinian prison is that some Palestinians have been granted VIP cards. They are deemed the 'moderate Palestinians', thus given special permits from the Israeli military to leave the Palestinian ‘prison’ and return as they please.
While former Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, was holed up in his office in Ramallah for years, until his death in November 2004, Mahmoud Abbas is free to travel. While Israel can, at times, be critical of Abbas, he rarely deviates far from the acceptable limits set by the Israeli government.
This is why Abbas is free and Marwan Barghouti is in jail.
Barghouti is far more popular among supporters of Fatah. In fact, he is the most popular leader amongst Palestinians, regardless of their ideological or political stances.
If the PA truly cared about prisoners and the well-being of Fatah’s most popular leader, Abbas would have busied himself with forging a strategy to galvanize the energy of the hungry prisoners, and millions of his people who rallied in their support.
Unsurprisingly, this is not the case.
“Abbas is publicly supportive of the strikers, but in private he is said to want the protest over as quickly as possible,” wrote Jonathan Cook. “Reports at the weekend revealed that he had urged Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to intercede with America and Israel to help.”
Mass mobilization has always scared Abbas and the PA. It is too dangerous for them, because popular action often challenges the established status quo, and could hinder his Israeli-sanctioned rule over occupied Palestinians.
While Palestinian media is ignoring the rift within Fatah, Israeli media is exploiting it, placing it within the larger political context, such as Abbas’s meeting with US President Donald Trump on May 3.
Abbas is eager to impress the impulsive president, especially as Trump is decreasing foreign aid worldwide, but increasing US assistance to the PA. That alone should be enough to understand the US administration’s view of Abbas and its appreciation of the role of his Authority in ensuring Israel's security and in preserving the status quo.
Matrix of control
Not all Fatah supporters are happy with Abbas’ subservience. The youth of the Movement want to reassert a strong Palestinian position through mobilizing the people; Abbas wants to keep things quiet.
Amos Harel argued in ‘Haaretz’ that the hunger strike, called for by Barghouti himself, was the latter's attempt at challenging Abbas and “rain(ing) on Trump's peace plan”. However, Trump has no plan. He is giving Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, carte blanche to do as he pleases. His solution is: one state, two states, whichever ‘both parties like.’
But both sides are far from being equal powers. Israel has nuclear capabilities and a massive army, while Abbas needs permission to leave the Occupied West Bank.
In this unequal reality, only Israel decides the fate of Palestinians. Why then, should Palestinians be quiet?
Their silence can only contribute to this gross reality, their painful present circumstances where Palestinians are perpetually imprisoned under an enduring Occupation, while their 'leadership' receives both a nod of approval from Israel and accolades and more funds from Washington.
It is under this backdrop that the hunger strike becomes far more urgent than the need to improve the conditions of incarcerated Palestinians.
It is a revolt within Fatah against their disengaged leadership, and a concerted and strategic attempt by all Palestinians to demonstrate their ability to destabilize the Israeli-American-PA matrix of control that has suffocated it for many years.
It is a call for Palestinian unity against factionalism and Israeli occupation.
"Rights are not bestowed by an oppressor," wrote Marwan Barghouti from his jail on the first day of the hunger strike.
In truth, his message was directed at Abbas and his cronies, as much as it was directed at Israel.
Dr. Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His books include “Searching Jenin”, “The Second Palestinian Intifada” and his latest “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story”. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net and he tweets @RamzyBaroud.