Palestinians: Hunger Strike or Smokescreen?
By Bassam Tawil

Originally Published by the Gatestone Institute.

Palestinians have an old habit of settling internal scores by diverting their grievances and violence towards Israel. This practice is clear to those who have been monitoring developments in the Palestinian arena for the past decades. It is an integral part of the Palestinian strategy to undermine, isolate, delegitimize and destroy Israel.

Those less familiar with Palestinian culture and tactics, however, have difficulty understanding the Palestinian mindset. Officials in Washington, London, Paris and other Western capitals rarely meet the ordinary Palestinian, the “man on the street” who represents the authentic voice of the Palestinians.

Instead, these officials meet Palestinian politicians and academics from Ramallah — the “experts” who are actually accomplished con artists. Such Palestinians grasp the Western mindset very well, and use their understanding to twist Western officials any which way they want.

The Western reaction to the hunger strike declared on April 17 by Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails is a case in point. The strike was initiated by Marwan Barghouti, a senior Fatah official who is serving five life terms for his role in terror attacks against Israelis. Barghouti has been in prison for 15 years so far.

Remarkably, despite Barghouti’s long-term imprisonment, this is his first hunger strike, apparently despite the poor incarceration conditions that have supposedly driven him to this move. Or might there be some other factor behind Barghouti’s sudden acute discomfort?

The hunger strike is, in fact, completely unrelated to conditions in Israeli prisons. Rather, Barghouti’s hunger strike is directly linked to a power struggle that has long been raging inside his Fatah faction. More than a move against Israel, the hunger strike is aimed at Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas (who is also chairman of Fatah).

The hunger strike declared by jailed Palestinian terrorist Marwan Barghouti (left) is aimed at Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (right). Barghouti’s supporters accuse Abbas and his loyalists of sidelining the jailed Fatah leader and seeking to “bury” him.

Last November, Barghouti emerged as the biggest winner in Fatah’s internal election. His status as a prisoner and his involvement in terrorism continue to be the main reason why he is so popular among Palestinians. Barghouti’s victory in the election meant that he was now number two after Abbas, and many expected the PA president to appoint him as his deputy.

This past February, however, the Fatah Central Council, a body dominated by Abbas loyalists, delivered a deliberate slap in the face to Barghouti, ignoring his landslide victory and appointing someone else (Mahmoud Aloul) as Deputy Fatah Chairman. The appointment of Aloul enraged Barghouti’s supporters, who rushed to accuse Abbas and his loyalists of sidelining the jailed Fatah leader and seeking to “bury” him.

Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, even went as far as accusing Abbas of “succumbing” to threats by Israel. Israeli officials had strongly criticized the result of the Fatah internal election, which the Barghouti won, calling it a vote for terrorism. Fadwa Barghouti said that her husband had won the first slot in the election, “which means he is number two in Fatah. There is no ignoring Marwan Barghouti’s position.”

The charges leveled by Barghouti’s wife against Abbas are not the first. In the past, she has accused Abbas and the PA leadership of imposing a blackout on news concerning her husband. In a letter to Abbas, she expressed “regret and pain” over the failure of Abbas to help her in her campaign to secure the release of her husband. She also complained that neither Fatah nor the PA leadership had provided funds to support the campaign calling for her husband’s release.

It is no secret that Abbas detests competition. He has been waging war against anyone who dares to challenge his rule, especially from within his own Fatah faction. Mohammed Dahlan, for example, a former PA security commander from the Gaza Strip and considered the number one enemy of the PA president, was expelled from Fatah on orders from Abbas. Dahlan, a Fatah parliamentarian, was stripped of his parliamentary immunity by Abbas. Dahlan is currently living in the United Arab Emirates, but is wanted by Abbas for “corruption” and “murder.”

Barghouti, however, presents Abbas with an immediate problem. The Palestinian on the street will not tolerate the defamation, at least not in public, of any Palestinian sitting in Israeli prison. Abbas sees Barghouti as a real threat, particularly in the wake of public opinion polls suggesting that Barghouti could easily win any presidential election. Barghouti at large would be a nightmare for Abbas.

So, no love is lost between Abbas and Barghouti; the two are engaged in a behind-the-scenes power struggle. Barghouti wants to succeed Abbas, while Abbas is working hard to marginalize him. Palestinian sources say that Abbas is not happy with Barghouti’s hunger strike. He believes Barghouti is trying to steal the spotlight from him, especially on the eve of his visit to Washington for talks with President Donald Trump. Abbas, who wants to be in the news all the time, cannot stand that Barghouti is grabbing the headlines and was even invited to write an op-ed in the New York Times.

It is not only Abbas, however, who is in trouble. Barghouti, too, knows better than to air dirty Fatah laundry. What, then, is to be done? The traditional diversionary tactic: Direct the heat towards Israel. Barghouti is suddenly concerned about his prison conditions and is demanding more privileges. Israel, he claims, imprisons Palestinians for their “peaceful resistance.” Barghouti knows it is not popular to come out in public against Abbas. Similarly, Abbas is using the hunger strike to incite against Israel and demand that all Palestinian terrorists, including ones with blood on their hands, be released unconditionally. The hunger strike is a smokescreen for the real problems inside Fatah and has nothing to do with the conditions of prisoners in Israeli jails.

Stripped of its Western trappings, Barghouti’s “hunger strike” is actually a struggle between Abbas and yet another Fatah pretender to the throne. And once again, Israel — the state that supposedly so “mistreats” incarcerated Palestinian terrorists — takes the heat.

Bassam Tawil, an Arab Muslim, is based in the Middle East.

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