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Daoud Kuttab

Palestinian prisoners' hunger strike: The real winners and losers

Marwan Barghouti led the hunger strike, and has been hailed across Palestine [AFP]

Date of publication: 31 May, 2017

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Comment: A victory for Marwan Barghouti's hunger strikers has left many believing Mahmoud Abbas and others should have done more to support the protest, writes Daoud Kuttab.
After 41 days of abstaining from the intake of any food except for salt and water, Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails have called off their hunger strike and declared victory.

Israel's Prison Authority insists that the prisoner strike ended after they transferred prison leader Marwan Barghouti to Ashqelon Prison and allowed him and his committee to communicate with Hussein al-Sheikh, the minister in the Palestinian government in charge of relations between Palestinians and Israeli officials.

As details of what is being called the Ashqelon Agreement emerge it does seem that many - though not all - of the prisoners' humanitarian demands have been met. But, as in many things in the Middle East, perception is often as important as reality - and in this case, the perception and the reality is that Palestinian prisoners did come out of the mass hunger strike victorious.

The real winner in this struggle is nonviolent activism.

Prisoners have few if any tools of resistance, and the hunger strike - a battle of discipline, perseverance and self-sacrifice - has proved once again that it can overcome armed prison guards and insensitive Israeli politicians.

While many are giving personal credit to leader Marwan Barghouti, the single most victorious winner is the dean of the prisoners, Kareem Younis, who, after 35 years of incarceration, is the longest-serving prisoner in an Israeli jail.
It is not clear whether including Younis in the Fatah Central Committee will help speed up his release - which has been one of the key demands of Palestinian negotiators


In one of the more important decisions made by the Palestinian leadership, Younis was appointed to the very important Fatah Central Committee. After the Seventh Fatah Congress held last December, four seats on the committee were left for the movement's leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to appoint.

Kareem Younis, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, was supposed to have been released in the fourth round of prisoners released in April 2014, as part of the agreement that led to the restart of peace talks. When Israel refused to release the group of 25 prisoners - including a number of citizens of Israel - and as Israel rescinded its promise to suspend settlement activities, the negotiations stopped.

Israel refuses to have its citizens defended by or included in any Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. It is not clear whether including Younis in the Fatah Central Committee will help speed up his release - which has been one of the key demands of Palestinian negotiators before returning to peace talks.

Marwan Barghouti certainly emerged as a winner. He succeeded in galvanizing the prisoners behind moderate humanitarian goals and at a time of apathy and a lack of interest in the Palestinian cause, he succeeded in giving the Palestinian struggle a face.

His op-ed in the New York Times on the first day of the hunger strike, and the prisoners' insistence that they would only end their strike when he agreed to a deal, showed a selfless leader fighting for his fellow prisoners and their well-being.
 
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Another big winner during the 41 days of hunger strike has been the Palestinian diaspora and the worldwide community of supporters of Palestine. The salt and water challenge recorded on YouTube by so many around the world became a signal of support for the Palestinian cause.

At a time of continued division among Palestinians inside and outside the occupied territories, the hunger strike succeeded in uniting all behind a clear and tangible goal. The international support for the prisoners unleashed huge international support for Palestine that should be built on in the future.

Despite this victory for unity, the fact that Hamas movement prisoners didn't participate will certainly weaken the movement. Hamas was a loser in the hunger strike because they were seen as talkers, not doers.

Another loser has been the Palestinian leadership and President Abbas - who was seen as having done the bear minimum in support for the hunger strike. Abbas certainly helped the hunger strike by talking in public and private about it, including during the press conference with US President Trump.

It might be that in his sensitive position he couldn't do much more - but the perception by many, as illustrated in the recent AWRAD poll - is that Abbas and his leadership could have done more. More than 60 percent of Palestinians criticized the Palestinian leadership's lack of enthusiastic support for the hunger strike.

Israel also came out as a loser in the hunger strike. Israeli officials' public pronouncements about not negotiating with the hunger strikers or heeding their demands was not held up in the end.

The fact that the Red Cross, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Israel's own human rights organisation B'tselem supported the hunger strikers' demands hurt Israel in the battle for public opinion.
The 6,000 Palestinian prisoners will all benefit from the sacrifice of some 1,600 courageous prisoners who were willing to sacrifice hunger and pain - and possibly death

When all that Palestinian prisoners were demanding was so mundane, such as a second monthly visit and a chance for women prisoners to hug their babies, the Israeli rejection of these demands appeared petty and inhuman. The fact that supporters around the world adopted the strikers' demands and held public protests about them is a further sign that Israel was a loser in this round.

The 6,000 Palestinian prisoners will all benefit from the sacrifice of some 1,600 courageous prisoners who were willing to sacrifice hunger and pain - and possibly death - in order to obtain basic humanitarian demands. To these prisoners, the result of the strike is also a victory of sorts.

Palestinians look to learn the lessons of the prisoners' hunger strike and apply them to the larger struggle for freedom and independence. As Palestine remembers fifty years of occupation, the lessons of the striking prisoners will hopefully be adopted to ensure that this long occupation will one day soon come to an end.

Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. 

Follow him on Twitter: @daoudkuttab


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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