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Analysis: Abbas popularity at all-time low ahead of massive prison hunger strike

James J. Marlow examines the political situation in the Palestinian Authority ahead of the massive hunger strike in Israeli prisons, which is scheduled to start in less than two weeks and being organized by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ political rival.
Abbas Photo Credit: Reuters/Channel 2 News

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his loyalists within the Fatah leadership are carrying out a number of steps to isolate and weaken the president’s political rival, Marwan Barghouti who remains in an Israeli prison.  

Barghouti is serving five life sentences for masterminding a series of deadly attacks against Israelis at the start of the Second Intifada. But the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah is once again noticing that Barghouti is flexing his political muscles by calling for a hunger strike beginning on April 17, which is Palestinian Prisoners’Day.

The former Tanzim leader is asking 2,890 Fatah party security prisoners in Israeli jails and also those from other movements to participate in a united Palestinian protest against Israel. But sources say that the protest is about the Israel Prison Service’s failure to meet the Fatah prisoners’ demands regarding an improvement of conditions in the detention centers.

The call for a hunger strike will be Barghouti’s most significant test since he entered prison some 15 years ago. In the Fatah Central Committee’s leadership elections last December (the party’s most senior institution), Barghouti won first place and with Abbas’ steady decline in popularity plus the fact the president is well into his twelve year of a four-year term as president, Palestinians in the West Bank are looking for alternative leadership.

Barghouti they say is the movement’s undisputed leader, despite being behind bars. His wife Fadwa also took first place in the movement’s Revolutionary Council elections (the party’s second most senior institution). But Abbas still refused to appoint him as deputy chairman of Fatah, as Barghouti had expected, and other senior positions were divided between rivals Jibril Rajoub and Mahmoud al-Mottak.

Barghouti’s backers also failed to be elected to other spots in the Central Committee and he knows that he is being slowly pushed out of the picture. Forced from the halls of power, Barghouti is using the strike to signal to the PA that he still wields considerable power on the Palestinian streets.

In 2000, he made a similar play when he urged Palestinians to approach Israeli checkpoints to face off against soldiers. But perhaps the situation on the Palestinian streets is no longer what it was in 2000. He has been isolated in prison for 15 years and it is still unclear whether the strike will find support amongst despondent West Bank residents.

Some say that those communities do not rush to demonstrate as they did in the past these days as they are focusing more on personal matters than collective ones and are more prone to being an activist on social media.

In addition, Barghouti’s demand, that Israel give security prisoners access to public telephones, is very steep because Israel will not start installing phone lines. His demands that Israel increase the number of prisoners’ family visits as well as ban the cancellation of these visits for security considerations are also unlikely to find any takers among the Israeli authorities.

Barghouti has committed himself to this strike and if it ends without a result, he may find himself even more isolated politically. Furthermore, Ramadan begins on May 26, during which Islam prohibits the enacting of such fasts.

Nevertheless, Barghouti’s move could be successful because it would create a serious headache for the PA and its security forces. The situation in Ramallah and the territories has been relatively stable although Hamas has considerable influence. But it appears the Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation has succeeded in containing major unrest on the ground, despite Hamas’ attempts to stir up trouble.

Unlike in the past though, it is difficult to predict how the PA will react to this hunger strike. This is not another provocation by Hamas aimed at thwarting Abbas and his colleagues. Nor is this one man trying to secure a get out of jail free card. This is a hunger strike of thousands of prisoners who are members of Fatah, some even former officers in Abbas’ security forces.

To the Palestinian public, these prisoners are “children” under the leadership of a man who long ago became a national symbol and is considered one of the most popular leaders in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Will the PA security forces rush to disperse a Fatah-led demonstration heading from Birzeit University towards the entrance to Ramallah? They have shown little hesitation stopping processions organized by the Hamas’ student group Al-Qutla al-Islamiyya. This time, however, the story is different.

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