An anticlimactic ending

The Palestinian terrorists who are imprisoned in Israel are very familiar with the ins and outs of bureaucracies such as the IDF, Shin Bet and the Israel Prisons Service.

Youth holds stone as Palestinians clash with IDF in the West Bank (photo credit: REUTERS)
Youth holds stone as Palestinians clash with IDF in the West Bank
(photo credit: REUTERS)
At the beginning of the week, an announcement was made by the Palestinian prisoners’ affairs committee that the hunger strike, which began over a month ago, had ended.
I don’t think anyone in the Israeli or Palestinian governments was surprised by the announcement. Unlike previous hunger strikes that were declared by individuals or prison organizations, this strike was not intended to produce any practical achievement for the prisoners themselves. The Palestinian terrorists who are imprisoned in Israel are very familiar with the ins and outs of bureaucracies such as the IDF, Shin Bet and the Israel Prisons Service; they know exactly what benefits they can squeeze out of the system and when they’ve reached the limit.
Throughout the years, hunger strikes have been used by Palestinian prisoners mainly as a tool in their nationalistic struggle carried out within the walls of prisons, and less as a way to actually improve their living conditions in the prison, which are already among the best in the western world. The most recent hunger strike was spearheaded by Marwan Barghouti, the most famous Palestinian prisoner and someone who views himself potentially as the next Palestinian leader.
After spending 15 years in prison, with four more life sentences left to serve (and having been expelled by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas from all official Fatah institutions), Barghouti understands that his status in the Palestinian community is slipping. Despite the fact that he came in first place in last year’s Fatah elections, he’s not out of touch with reality and realizes that his role is beginning to fade in the Palestinian consciousness and his name is likely to disappear into the annals of history.
Barghouti, who at one time was the Tanzim leader in the territories who would meet with heads of the security establishment, now idles away his time in a prison cell, secretly munching on cookies. Against the backdrop of this situation, he initiated the hunger strike with the understanding that this was the only way he could catch a little of the international limelight and remain within the heart of Palestinian consciousness, all while knowing that he never had any real chance of realizing his goal.
From Barghouti’s point of view, this was a winning idea. He’s reminding everyone that he’s a famous Palestinian leader fighting against the Israelis and that the Palestinian leadership must support his actions in order to be perceived as supportive of the Palestinian prisoners’ struggle. In this way, the Palestinian people are rediscovering the next Palestinian “leader” – who happens to be incarcerated in an Israeli prison.
But Barghouti’s dream came to fruition quicker than he expected, and only a small portion – 25% – of Palestinian prisoners joined the hunger strike, with only half actually carried on until to the end. Many of the prisoners dropped out pretty quickly, and the few who remained found that not only did their living conditions not improve, they actually worsened.
The prisoners were given punishments, such as being sent to solitary confinement or separated from fellow strikers by being transferred to different prisons. In the end, not even one of their demands was met. In fact, the most memorable moment of the strike was probably the incredibly embarrassing picture the Prisons Service published of Barghouti munching on a chocolate wafer while crouching inside his cell.
These facts, combined with the political developments taking place outside the prison walls along with US President Donald Trump’s efforts to initiate talks while condemning terrorism, led Barghouti to conclude that he must end the hunger strike even though he hadn’t made any significant achievements. It wasn’t actually Barghouti who made the decision; it was the Palestinian prisoners’ affairs committee, which made the final decision before Barghouti had even arrived for the meeting.
Of course, the Palestinians claim they stopped the strike after reaching a verbal agreement with the Prisons Service, but their only actual achievement was receiving one additional monthly visit by family members – which will be financed by the PA.
So what changes actually happened? A series of public relations stunts took place as part of the campaign for the highest Palestinian leadership position available. Nothing about the hunger strike had anything remotely to do with the Palestinians’ nationalistic struggle against Israel or the improvement of prisoners’ conditions – which, by the way, are among the best compared with any other western country.
The Prisons Service handled the affair properly, and in doing so gained brownie points from Abbas, who only passively supported the hunger strike. In the end, Barghouti’s offensive failed, and his chances of becoming the next Palestinian leader are now weaker than ever. Not only that, this farce will make it much more difficult for Palestinian prisoners to achieve their goals the next time they strike.
The lessons from this episode are the following: Engage in less publicity; prevent the prisoners from speaking freely; insist that negotiations take place directly between the prisoners and the Prisons Service; refuse to respond to any of their demands; and manage the crisis wisely, quietly and without any criticism whatsoever. If these steps are taken, all the potentially explosive effects of a hunger strike can be neutralized rapidly and quietly, without having to give in to any demands.
The writer is a former brigadier-general who served as a division head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
Translated by Hannah Hochner.