For over a week, Marwan Barghouti—a former leader of the Fatah faction’s military wing and a key figure behind the second intifada—has been engaged in a hunger strike along with hundreds of his fellow Palestinian prisoners. Ostensibly, the strikers are seeking better treatment from the Israeli prison holding them. Bassam Tawil argues that something else is at stake:
Barghouti has been in prison for fifteen years so far. Remarkably, despite his long-term imprisonment, this is his first hunger strike, despite the poor incarceration conditions that have supposedly driven him to this move. . . . [But] 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. . . .
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 means that he is now number two after Mahmoud 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 as deputy chairman. . . .
Barghouti . . . presents Abbas with a [particularly serious] 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.
[But] Barghouti . . . knows better than to air Fatah’s dirty laundry. What, then, is to be done? The traditional diversionary tactic: direct the heat toward Israel. . . . Barghouti knows opposing Abbas publicly would be an unpopular move. 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.