Demonstrators take part in a rally in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, April 2017.
Demonstrators take part in a rally in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, April 2017.
Mohamad Torokman / REUTERS

Last week, over a thousand Palestinian prisoners in Israel launched a hunger strike under the leadership of Marwan Barghouti, the mastermind of Fatah’s terror campaign during the second intifada and the recipient of five life sentences in an Israeli prison. Writing in the New York Times on April 16, Barghouti stated that the goal of the strike is to “seek an end” to various Israeli practices in the prisons, such as limiting family visits and access to telephones. In fact, he may have another reason for his campaign: a desire to become the next Palestinian president.

Among Palestinians in Israeli jails, hunger strikes are common, although rarely on this scale. Typically, one prisoner will strike and stretch the fast for months, galvanizing broad Palestinian support. Previous hunger strikes have brought thousands of protesters into the streets. Few issues in Palestinian society are as emotive as that of prisoners in Israeli jails. During the last round of peace negotiations, in 2013-14, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas demanded that Israel release prisoners in batches throughout the talks. And much of the terror group Hamas’s clout on the street derives from the fact that it secured the release of over a thousand prisoners for one Israeli captive in 2011.

Barghouti himself has participated in prisoner strikes before, but he’s never organized one on this scale. And although few would question his commitment to the Palestinian cause, his primary motivation here seems political. As Abbas enters the 13th year of a four-year presidential term, he has proven particularly masterful at sidelining rivals. With no clear successor, Abbas has allowed various aspirants to jockey to fill the void that will be left by his eventual departure. And as the jockeying has played out, Barghouti has learned from his rivals.

As Abbas enters the 13th year of a four-year presidential term, he has proven particularly masterful at sidelining rivals.

THE OPPOSITION LANDSCAPE

Some contenders have tried to openly challenge Abbas. That has been the strategy of former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan. The Dahlan-Abbas rivalry is infamous in Palestinian politics. The bad blood between the two men stems from years of a generational rivalry fueled by the younger Dahlan challenging Abbas’s standing. Those tensions erupted soon after Abbas became president in 2005. After the Palestinian civil war in 2007, Abbas blamed Dahlan for losing Gaza to Hamas forces. Dahlan then began to challenge Abbas politically. By 2011, Abbas had summarily excommunicated Dahlan from his party on charges of corruption, and the latter sought exile in the United Arab Emirates, from which he pumps money into local gangs and armed groups in West Bank refugee camps in the hopes of fomenting unrest.

But Dahlan remains in the political wilderness. And his fortunes have soured of late, most noticeably this past November at the Fatah conference, where party officials gathered to elect new leadership bodies. Before the conference, Abbas purged Dahlan supporters from the party and culled nearly a thousand attending delegates. Then he had himself “unanimously” re-elected as party head. In so doing, he not only removed Dahlanists from the party’s apparatuses; he consolidated his own grip on power. Dahlan countered by holding conferences of his own in Egypt, but they accomplished little. Dahlan continues to be the unofficial leader of the opposition, but with a shrinking list of allies, his approach has largely failed.

Other potential successors have tried a more conciliatory approach. By pledging support to Abbas and the party, they have tried to show the Palestinian people that their aspirations are national, not personal. The chief practitioner of this approach is Jibril Rajoub, the longtime West Bank security chief and current head of the Palestinian soccer federation. Rajoub has feuded with Abbas in the past and undoubtedly has his eyes on the top spot, yet he has cloaked his criticism in devotion to Abbas and the party and insists that his focus is on revitalizing Fatah. Largely because of this approach, he came in second in the party’s internal elections last November.

Barghouti appears to have adopted this second approach. Thanks to his high rank in Fatah and his status as a prisoner, he has transformed himself into a national figure. Within the party, his status as a military commander during the second intifada won him clout among the rank-and-file. He came in first in votes for the party’s highest body, the Central Committee, in November. In the same elections, his wife Fadwa came in first for the party’s legislative body. Palestinians view him as a unifying figure largely because he cooperates with rival parties Hamas and Islamic Jihad; for example, coordinating with them to raise the profile of the current prisoner strike. In polls, he regularly garners broad support. One December poll had him defeating both Abbas and Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh in a three-way presidential contest. Although he has criticized Abbas’s decisions in the past, he has not challenged him outright. Instead, he has said he would simply vie for the presidency were Abbas to step down.

But that does not mean Abbas does not view Barghouti as a threat to his rule. In both of the last major Fatah conferences, Abbas used the party’s internal elections to keep Barghouti’s allies out of the Central Committee. Earlier this year, amid speculation that Abbas would appoint the party’s first vice chairman, Barghouti’s allies argued that the position should go to him since he garnered the most votes within the party. Instead, the vice chairman portfolio went to Mahmoud al-Aloul, a former governor of Nablus. Rajoub became the party’s secretary-general. Barghouti was given no portfolio.

Sidelined by the leadership in Ramallah, Barghouti has escalated his campaign to replace Abbas. The strike is a win-win scenario for him: either Israel resists his demands and Palestinians take to the street to support the campaign, or Israel acquiesces and he appears to have extracted concessions. Either way, Abbas and the rest of the Palestinian leadership cannot appear to be anything less than supportive of Barghouti and the prisoners. Already, PA officials have attended protests in support of the strike, released statements listing the demands of the strikers, and even personally lobbied American officials on their behalf.

In his New York Times article, Barghouti proclaimed the strike would “demonstrate once more that the prisoners’ movement is the compass that guides our struggle.” It is also the engine that may power his path to the presidency.

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  • GRANT RUMLEY is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and co-author of the upcoming The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas (Prometheus).
  • More By Grant Rumley