AMMAN: In the early hours of Saturday, following a grueling 20 hours of negotiations Palestinian prisoners announced the suspension of their hunger strike that began on April 17.
As information about what was agreed to slowly filtered out, with the main humanitarian demand of two visits per month being clinched, prisoners’ families — who have been holding continuous protests in tents throughout the occupied territories — broke out in cheers and celebrations.
What is important to note is that this was a hunger strike that Israeli political leaders and pundits had argued would fail. They said it was nothing more than a political effort by prison leader Marwan Barghouti to improve his standing within the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) leading Fatah movement.
The prisoners’ success was the headline of the independent website Maan, which read: “The prisoners have won and have suspended their strike.”
Similarly, former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad tweeted: “The prisoners won with their will and this is the forerunner for the victory of our people.” He followed his tweet with the now-popular hashtag #IndependenceAndDignity.
Naser Laham, Palestinian columnist and editor of the Maan website, quickly added his commentary to the prisoners’ success, saying they had turned down a quarter of a million meals and collectively lost 40,000 kilograms. Laham said in the initial weeks many pitied the hunger-strikers, but the pity should now go to leaders who were complacent.
The lessons from the hunger strike are many. The prisoners agreed on a known and tested leadership, presented reasonable and achievable goals, planned all aspects well, refused to be dissuaded from their goals, and succeeded in revitalizing local, regional and international support for their cause and that of Palestinian rights.
Agreeing on a leadership committee headed by Barghouti was sensitive because it allowed opponents to claim this was a personal crusade. The prisoners agreed on one of their own, which gave them a level of comfort that allowed them to make the risky sacrifice of abstaining from food en masse.
Their demands were humanitarian and in accordance with international law, which allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International and Israeli rights group B’Tselem to support them. The planning of the strike, and the various committees inside and outside jail and around the world, seemed to work flawlessly toward a clear and defendable goal.
Efforts to break up the strike began from day one, with prisoners regularly moved around and leaders isolated. Efforts by the Israel Prison Service included distributing a video reportedly showing Barghouti cheating on the hunger strike. Media in Israel and abroad claimed the strike would fail. All these efforts failed as follow-up committees published press releases and commentaries debunking Israeli claims, rendering them ineffective.
The level of protests in Palestine and throughout the world was a major tribute to the prisoners and to Palestine. It was a clear sign that the prisoners were headed for victory. Fans of Wehdat football team in Jordan, Italian MPs, the Irish city of Dublin, demonstrators in Times Square in New York, South Africa’s deputy president and many, many more all showed solidarity. Meanwhile, the hashtag #dignitystrike trended on many days and in many locations.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and most of the senior Palestinian leadership performed badly. With the exception of the prime minister, most of them, including Abbas, took a wait-and-see attitude. Abbas met with Barghouti’s wife and spoke publicly about the prisoners during the summit with US President Donald Trump in Bethlehem, but the general feeling was that Abbas was not fully involved in or committed to the strike.
It may be that his position, and his attempts at a balancing act with the new US administration’s demands to defund prisoners’ families, forced him to stay quite. Nevertheless, the Palestinian public did not rate his performance well. Perhaps the best indication of the gap between the prisoners and Abbas came in the two columns published on the topic in the New York Times.
On the first day of the strike, Barghouti detailed the issues that forced the prisoners to protest, under the headline: “Why are we on hunger strike in Israel’s prisons?” On the last day of the strike, the Times published an op-ed by Diana Buttu, former adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team, under the headline: “Why the Palestinian Authority should be shuttered.”
In a survey conducted by the Ramallah-based organization Arab World for Research and Development (AWRAD) during May 21-23, more than 60 percent of Palestinians said they were partially or totally unhappy with the performance of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Abbas and Palestinian political parties in supporting the hunger strike.
Pessimists might argue that the accomplishment of getting a second visit, books, phone calls and more television channels was not important and could have been done without so much sacrifice. But the real goal was to gain back dignity. In that, the strike was a huge success.
It showed that with dedicated leadership that is willing to make personal sacrifices and set clear and reasonable goals, and with a people believing in them and their goals, anything is possible.