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Reportage. On April 17, Marwan Barghouti will lead thousands of imprisoned Fatah members on a hunger strike to demand better living conditions in Israeli jails. The move is a test of his party leadership.

Palestinian Mandela prepares for high-stakes hunger strike

Marwan Barghouti is ready to lead the hunger strike of Fatah’s political prisoners, as a protest against Israel and to improve living conditions in prisons. But this action also has an obvious domestic political objective: to put pressure on the leaders of the party and the Palestinian National Authority.

Barghouti, known as the “Palestinian Mandela” and the most popular Fatah leader in the occupied Palestinian territories, has been sidelined despite being the most voted among the members of the Central Committee at the recent party congress. And from prison, with the strong support of around 3,000 Fatah prisoners, he now challenges those who are candidates to replace the 82-year-old President Abu Mazen. For days, his wife Fadwa, also a Fatah leader, has been launching accusations against the upper echelons of the party on social media.

They are planning to begin the hunger strike on April 17. Barghouti has made several requests to the Israeli authorities, such as the increase of family visit days to the families of prisoners, a solution for the overcrowding in cells and setup of public telephones available to the detainees. He is pushing to set up a negotiations table that the Israeli minister for internal security Gilad Erdan rejects. The latter has already ordered the establishment of a field hospital near the Katziot prison, the most engaged in the protest, to treat prisoners who might have health problems because of prolonged fasting, without having to send them to hospitals.

Barghouti is betting a lot on the success of this hunger strike, which involves about half of all Palestinian political prisoners. If he can force Israel to grant his requests, then he will prove unequivocally his strong leadership, based on the support of thousands of prisoners, their families and so many other Palestinians who will be called to take to the streets in support of the protest. Barghouti is also looking for a rematch. Despite the huge popularity he enjoys, he was not named vice president of the party, as was expected last December. The position was assigned to Mahmoud al Aloul, an esteemed politician but not as charismatic and popular as him. Al Aloul is now in a position to aspire to be the President of the PNA.

Barghouti and his supporters do not accept it. The Palestinian Mandela, however, does not share Abu Mazen’s soft line and openly criticizes the continuation of security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. It is no coincidence that the protest of Fatah prisoners will start while the PNA president is preparing to leave for Washington, where he will meet with Donald Trump at the White House.

“If the hunger strike is successful, the leaders of the party and the PNA will not be able to keep holding Barghouti in the freezer,” a senior Fatah militant, who requested anonymity, told il manifest. ”At the same time, [Barghouti] will need to keep up the prisoner hunger strike without defections for a few weeks; otherwise he will lose the battle.”

It is unclear whether Hamas prisoners will also join the fast. It is tempting for the Islamist movement to participate in an initiative that will cause problems for the leaders of the rival party. But now they are engaged in the investigation of the murder of Mazen Faqha, one of its important military commanders, allegedly by Israeli agents. Last week, three suspected spies were executed in public, amid protests for the protection of human rights. At the same time, Hamas has given the go-ahead to the reopening of Gaza, sealed after Faqha’s murder. The tensions in the strip are also high as a result of deteriorating living conditions.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of Palestinians took to the streets against a salary cut of 30 percent for PNA officials, ordered by the Prime Minister of the Ramallah government, Rami Hamdallah. After Hamas took power in Gaza in 2007, the PNA ordered its employees, about 70,000 people, not to work for the so called “coup” authorities (Hamas employs its own employees, over 40,000) and has continued to pay them in the past 10 years.

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