Hundreds of supporters of the 1,500 Palestinian hunger strikers in Israeli jails celebrated “victory” Saturday at Yasser Arafat square in Ramallah, where the same supporters, mostly young people, had taken part in meetings and discussions during the 40-day fast that began April 17.
The protest ended overnight Friday and Saturday, at the beginning of Ramadan, with an agreement between the strikers, the Israeli prison authorities and the Red Cross. The heat and the Ramadan fasting did not prevent the celebration of the crowd of supporters, activists and family members of detainees, with political songs and traditional dances.
Palestinians describe it as a success over the stubbornness of the Netanyahu government, which — unlike the Shin Bet, the internal security service — had declared itself against any negotiations with inmates demanding better living conditions in prisons. But the negotiations could only be avoided for more than a month. In the end, the officials “of the Israeli prisons service” had to start talking in the Ashkelon prison with the representatives of the strikers — Ahmad Barghouti, Nasser Uweis, Ammar Mardi and Nasser Abu Hmeid — and then, with the main inspiration behind the protests, with the soul of the fasting ongoing for 40 days, Marwan Barghouti.
The leader of the Fatah faction in the West Bank has been imprisoned since 2002. Until that point, the Israelis had avoided any form of dialogue with him, but then he was key to unblocking the negotiations. Issa Qaraqe, spokesperson of the National Committee in support of the detainees, explained Saturday: “Only when [the Israelis] involved Marwan was it possible to come to the understanding that will provide better living conditions to our imprisoned brothers.”
Until Saturday night, there was uncertainty about the improvements extracted from Israel. The detainees achieved an increase in family visits, from one to two times a month. The Israeli authorities have agreed to lift restrictions that limited access of adult family members of inmates to prisons. But it is unclear whether the detainees will really enjoy access to public telephones in prisons and to a greater number of television channels. Nothing was done regarding the end of administrative detention without trial.
Barghouti achieved a personal goal with the hunger strike. Overcoming a filibuster by many Palestinians, many of them at the top of his party, and the non-cooperation of the Islamic movement Hamas — engaged in a new confrontation with Fatah and President of the West Bank Abu Mazen — the main promoter of the protest confirmed his popularity in the streets of the occupied territories, even though his family prefers to downplay this fact.
Saturday, at the headquarters of the Committee “Free Marwan Baghouti” in Ramallah, the son of the Fatah leader Qassam Barghouti reiterated: “It is not my father’s victory, it is the victory of all prisoners and all Palestinians. The battle continued by many prisoners, of all political persuasions, has confirmed that the Palestinians get their rights only when they are united and determined.”
The outcome of the hunger strike will have an impact on the relations of power at the top of the Fatah party, where several candidates want to take the place of 82-year-old Abu Mazen. Analyst Ghassan Khatib explains: “Marwan Barghouti was already very popular, and now he is even more popular. His prestige is stronger among the Fatah base, and he is now the leading candidate to succeed Abu Mazen. The other suitors are all weakened.”
Whether Barghouti will become president has been an unanswered question for years. He is in jail serving five life sentences, and it is difficult to imagine that Israel will release him, in the light of the statements clearly contrary to this possibility expressed by Prime Minister Netanyahu and other political leaders. Khatib warns: “Never say never. The current conditions do not allow for Barghouti’s release, but things could change. And, anyway, Israel is not the only deciding force.”