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April 30, 2017

Abbas fears the growing influence of Marwan Barghouti

By Jonathan Cook


The Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is due to meet Donald Trump in the White
House on Wednesday to discuss reviving the long-cold corpse of the peace process.

Back home, things are heating up. There is anger in the West Bank, both on the
streets and within the ranks of Mr Abbas’s Fatah movement. The trigger is a two-week-
old hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners.

Last Thursday, Palestinians shuttered their businesses in a show of solidarity, and the
next day youths clashed with the Israeli army in a “day of rage”.

About a quarter of the 6,500 political prisoners held by Israel – almost all of them in
Israeli territory, in violation of international law – are refusing food in protest at their
degrading treatment. They want reforms to Israel’s industrial system of incarceration.
Some 800,000 Palestinians – 40 per cent of males – have passed through Israel’s
cells since 1967.

Israel hopes to break the prisoners’ spirits. It has locked up the leaders in solitary
confinement, denied striking inmates access to a lawyer, taken away radios, and last
week began confiscating salt rations – the only sustenance along with water the
prisoners are taking.

The strike is led by Marwan Barghouti, the most senior Palestinian leader in jail – and
the most popular, according to polls.

Mr Abbas is publicly supportive of the strikers, but in private he is said to want the
protest over as quickly as possible. Reports at the weekend revealed that he had
urged Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, to intercede with America and Israel to

In part, Mr Abbas fears the influence of Mr Barghouti, a man often described as the
Palestinian Nelson Mandela and seen as Mr Abbas’s likely successor. Notably, the
Palestinian president has repeatedly sidelined him within Fatah.

But Mr Abbas is also concerned that the hunger strike will provoke violent clashes in
the West Bank with Israeli security forces, damaging his efforts to persuade Mr Trump
to back his diplomatic campaign for Palestinian statehood.

Instead, he wants to prove he can snuff out any signs of what Mr Trump might see as
“terrorism”. That requires tight security cooperation with Israel.

The visit to Washington and the hunger strike have brought into sharp relief the
biggest fault line in the Palestinian national movement.

Mr Abbas’s strategy is strictly top-down. Its starting point is that western states – those
that have consistently betrayed the Palestinian people over many decades – can now
be trusted to help them attain a state.

From this dubious assumption, Mr Abbas has sought to suppress anything that plays
badly in western capitals. Pressure has only intensified under Mr Trump.

By contrast, the “battle of empty stomachs” is evidence of a burgeoning bottom-up
strategy, one of mass non-violent resistance. On this occasion, the demands are
limited to prison reform, but the strike’s impact could spread.

Not least, the model of protest, should it succeed, might suggest its relevance to a
Palestinian public disillusioned with Mr Abbas’s approach. They too are living in cells
of Israel’s devising, even if larger, open-air ones.

The starkly different logic of these two strategies is harder than ever to ignore.

To stand a hope of winning over the Trump administration, Mr Abbas must persuade it
that he is the sole voice of the Palestinians.

That means he must keep a lid on the hunger strike, encouraging it to fizzle out
before prisoners start dying and Palestinian fury erupts across the occupied
territories. His approach is reported to be creating severe tensions within Fatah.

Wishing only to add to those difficulties, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu
demanded last week that Mr Abbas halt financial aid to the prisoners’ families, calling
it compensation for terrorism.

Mr Abbas also feels compelled to assert himself against his Hamas rivals in Gaza.
That is why last week he stopped funding the fuel needed to generate electricity
there, having recently cut medical services and salaries to Gaza’s civil servants.

His hope is that, as he turns the screws, Hamas will be toppled or forced to submit to
his rule.

But more probably, the fissure with Hamas will deepen, forcing the cornered Islamist
movement into another bloody confrontation to break free of Israel’s decade-old
blockade. These divisions, most Palestinians increasingly understand, weaken rather
than strengthen their cause. Mass non-violent resistance such as the hunger strike,
by contrast, has the potential to reunite Fatah and Hamas in struggle, and re-
empower a weary Palestinian populace.

Reports have suggested that Mr Barghouti has reached a deal with jailed Hamas
leaders committing to just such a struggle in the occupied territories once Mr Abbas
has departed.

A popular struggle of non-violence – blocking settlement roads, marching to
Jerusalem, tearing down walls – would be hard to characterise as terrorism, even for
Mr Trump. It is the Israeli army’s nightmare scenario, because it is the only
confrontation for which it has no suitable response.

Such a campaign of civil disobedience, however, stands no chance of success so
long as Mr Abbas is there to undermine it – and insists on obediently chasing after
illusions in Washington.

Jonathan Cook is an award-winning British journalist and author of several books who
reports from Palestine.