Not long before Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned leader of Fatah, called the largest hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners in recent years, his wife, Fadwa, and daughter Ruba visited him in Hadarim prison, Israel.
“The last time I went to visit him with my daughter was two to three months ago,” recalled Fadwa last week on the 11th day of the strike. “My daughter said to him, ‘I wish you wouldn’t do this. We don’t see you very often. My brothers don’t see you. We will worry about you and not be able to visit.’ He replied: ‘I know it’s going to be painful for the family’.”
Two weeks since it began, the strike by more than 1,000 prisoners in Israeli jails is galvanising Palestinian opinion. On Thursday, the day The Observer spoke to Fadwa in Ramallah, a general strike in support of the prisoners had shuttered shops, offices and schools. Roads were blocked by barricades and there were new posters in the city, depicting the prisoners.
The hunger strike is taking place against a background of rising tension before the 50th anniversary in June of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, not just between Palestinians and Israelis, but between the main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas.
At its centre is Barghouti, 57, who is serving a life sentence after being convicted in 2004 by an Israeli court of five counts of murder for his role in directing attacks against Israelis during the second intifada, which took place between 2000 and 2005. As the strike began, he was moved from Hadarim into solitary confinement in a prison near Haifa.
Barghouti’s supporters insist the strike is about prisoner rights, not his political ambitions. But inevitably the question of how he is seen – and what he represents – has come to dominate.
In the rhetoric of right-wing Israeli ministers and commentators, Barghouti is a “murderer and terrorist” who some say should have been executed. To many Palestinians he is a hero, sometimes compared to Nelson Mandela, and a figure untainted by the corruption and political machinations that have been a hallmark of the era of the ageing Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.
In her office, hung with pictures of her husband, the strain is beginning to show on Fadwa. With little information from the Israeli prison service, and no access, what news she has comes from other prisoners who have seen her husband and managed to pass back a few details.
Some reports say the strike is already exacting a heavy toll on its participants, who are taking only water and salt, although none so far have suffered serious health problems. “The next days will be hard,” said Fadwa. “The last time I saw him was two weeks before the strike. Since the first day no one has been able visit him. All the information I have is unofficial. Some of the prisoners are suffering and it is getting worse.”
Fadwa said the strikers drew up a list of demands eight months ago, about prison conditions, including visits, access to phones, education and health screening. “They sent letters to the Palestinian leadership saying if Israel did not comply by 16 April the strike would begin, telling the Palestinian Authority that they could help prevent it by putting pressure on the Israelis.”
Even if there have been contacts behind the scenes, it appears there has been no negotiation. Instead Israel has increased pressure on the strikers by cutting them off from the outside world. Supporters say radios have been confiscated and access to lawyers ended. Issa Qaraqe, head of prisoners affairs for the Palestinian Authority, said the leaders have been confined in solitary, and others have been moved to special wings. “They have set up collective confinement sections where hunger strikers have been put with only the clothes they are wearing, mattresses and toothpaste, with personal belongings confiscated.”
Of more concern to Qaraqe and Fadwa has been comments by some Israeli ministers, including the combative intelligence minister Israel Katz, who said Barghouti should have been executed. “When a despicable murderer like Barghouti protests in prison for improved conditions, while the relatives of those he murdered are still in pain, there is only one solution – death penalty for terrorists,” said Katz at the beginning of the protest.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Barghouti as an “arch-terrorist” while the defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, suggested Israel should take the approach of Margaret Thatcher towards the IRA hunger strikers in 1981 and allow them to die.
Describing the Israeli response as “incitement and provocation”, Qaraqe said: “These statements – accompanied by the extreme measures against the hunger strikers – aggravate the situation. This strike did not come out of a vacuum. It came out of the failure to discuss the issues with the Israeli prison authorities … Israel brought the situation to this level.” Beyond the prison walls, the scale of the strike has created problems for all sides. Israeli authorities have previously negotiated with hunger strikers, and their intransigent language has raised tensions. And while senior Palestinian figures, including Abbas, offer vocal support, the timing of the strike – before next week’s meeting between Abbas and Donald Trump in Washington – is clearly troubling them. The result is a complicated balancing act for the Palestinian leadership – lending support while instructing their security services to prevent clashes with Israelis at checkpoints during demonstrations supporting the strike. This underscores the view that Barghouti has limited control of the situation.
That he should be at the forefront, even in prison, is hardly surprising to long-time observers. Speaking to this writer three years ago, former Israeli peace negotiator Yossi Beilin, who knew Barghouti, presciently flagged up the challenge that he posed. Inside or outside jail, Barghouti remains one of the most important Palestinian leaders. “I am not an admirer,” Beilin said then. “He is shrewd. A street cat. He is a proud Palestinian, proud of his movement. I saw him [during the Oslo peace talks] as a partner. Someone committed to a political solution.
“He is a politician and a statesman. Like other politicians who have been involved with violence, we have somehow to find a way of dealing with him in a political framework … because he can lead those who follow him to an agreement.”
That “shrewdness” is evident in the hunger strike, and not only its timing ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation. The demands for better prisoner conditions, low key as they are, seem designed to be – in theory at least – achievable.
The question now is whether Barghouti’s well-attested influence and charisma is such that he can lead, even sequestered in solitary confinement.
For Israel, if the protest continues, the choices do not appear good, with security officials aware that dead hunger strikers would risk an upsurge in violence. Force-feeding too, although permitted in Israel following a supreme court ruling last year, is also deeply contentious, with the Israeli Medical Association opposed.
In her office, Fadwa is suddenly tearful, contemplating where the hunger strike will lead: “An element that makes it harder is that I feel other families want to draw strength from me, so I need to hide my feelings,” she said, adding that the strike had made her realise how much her husband had been absent from his family – in prison, wanted, or deported. “I used to blame Marwan for not being there. He said you have to bear with me. It is the struggle for a better life for our children. Now it has been 30 years.”
It is also clear that the absence of any dialogue does not bode well for the health of the strikers. Asked about the risks, she says only: “God will protect him.”