This past Monday more than a thousand Palestinian political detainees launched a hunger strike across several Israeli prisons. At the heart of the strike, is their collective demand calling for improvements to living conditions for up to 6,500 Palestinian prisoners who are currently being held under detention for a wide range of activities. These activities include rock throwing, participating in violence carried out against Israeli targets, and membership in outlawed organizations. In response, Israeli authorities have moved swiftly to crack down on the dissenting prisoners through punitive measures such as solitary confinement and the confiscation of clothes and personal belongings of several leading political prisoners. Marwan Barghouti, a prisoner, is the chief organizer of the hunger strike. He is widely respected and admired by Palestinians. In fact, his recently published New York Times op-ed is seen as one of the triggers behind the incidents of the last few days, which include the protests currently being staged in several Palestinian cities. In it, he describes how he and other detainees, “…have suffered from torture, inhumane and degrading treatment, and medical negligence.” Key government figures have denied much of these claims. To make matters worse, some prisoners/detainees are held under “Administrative Detention,” which allows for suspects to be detained without charge for six-month intervals.
Following on the heels of the op-ed publication, several Israeli officials (Prime Minister Netanyahu included) rejected the idea of negotiating a deal with the prisoners. The Israeli Public Safety Minister went as far as saying that the op-ed and the protests it has inspired amount to a mutiny and a severe violation of the rules of the prison. He added that the detainees, “…are terrorists and incarcerated murderers who are getting what they deserve.” Issa Qaraqe of the Palestinian Authority criticized this statement and the general response of Israeli authorities. Qaraqe warned of a “possible intifada” if the prisoners’ demands aren’t met.
All rhetoric aside, the past week has also served to focus attention on the succession plan within Fatah, of which Marwan Barghouti is currently a member. Owing to the timing of the aforementioned events which coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Israeli-occupation of Palestinian territory, some analysts believe that Barghouti may be gearing up to stake his claim as future leader of the Palestinian Authority. The incumbent leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is now 82. This has led to speculation regarding potential candidates. With the added fact that no other potential leader is held in the same esteem as Barghouti, he does at the moment appear to be the clear favourite to take over. It should be noted though, that despite enjoying favourability among Palestinians, not everyone is enamoured by this prospect. The PLO’s Israeli counterparts for example, point to his unsuitability as a leader and partner in peace. This stems from his involvement in the killing of Israeli targets during the second intifada despite initially being a proponent of peace in the first intifada. In their view, this violent facet of his personal history counts against him.
As things stand, the strike and the protests it has inspired are predicted to gather pace, in what is widely considered to be the largest of its kind in recent years. What consequences this is likely to have on the long-stalled peace process, remains to be seen.