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 intifadaand 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 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.
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