Punishment of Barghouti will not end protests

Marwan Barghouti,the jailed Palestinian leader, is critical to the future resolution of the conflict with Israel, writes James Zogby

Marwan Barghouti appears in a Jerusalem court. Bernat Armangue / AP Photo
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

One thousand five hundred Palestinian prisoners have been on a hunger strike for almost a week. They are refusing sustenance in an effort to improve the deplorable conditions faced by the nearly 6,500 Palestinians languishing in Israeli prisons.

The day before the strike began the leader of the protesters, Marwan Barghouti, published an opinion article in The New York Times. It was an elegantly written piece in which Mr Barghouti laid out the conditions in Israel’s prisons and the demands of the strikers. These demands include: more regular family visits, better health care, an end to solitary confinement and administrative detention (a practice in which Israel jails Palestinians for prolonged periods without charges or trial – there are currently 500 such detainees), and installation of public telephones enabling prisoners to have monitored calls with their families.

Mr Barghouti began his article noting that he had been in prison for 15 years during which time “I have been both a witness to and a victim of Israel’s illegal system of mass arrests and the ill-treatment of Palestinian prisoners”. He concluded his opening paragraph saying: “After exhausting all other options, I decided there was no other choice but to resist these abuses by going on a hunger strike”.

As one of the co-founders of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, I have long been acquainted with Israel’s justice system. Since most Palestinians have been convicted based on confessions obtained under duress, international human-rights organisations have condemned Israel’s violations of international law and the lack of due process afforded to prisoners.

The Israeli government’s response to the article and to the strike itself have been revealingly characteristic of its modus operandi. Because the Times initially described Mr Barghouti as a member of the Palestinian parliament and a leader, Israel launched a campaign forcing the editors to change their description to note that Mr Barghouti had been convicted of murder and membership of a terrorist organisation.

What Israel did not mention was that Mr Barghouti’s arrest, trial and conviction were denounced by the Switzerland-based Inter-Parliamentary Union as “a violation of international law” and having “failed to meet fair-trial standards”. But when Israel is on the warpath in an effort to discredit criticism, facts don’t matter. Instead it forces its target into submission. Israel called the op-ed “journalist terrorism”, accused the Times of “media terrorism” and called Mr Barghouti’s piece “fake news”. Former Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, called for an investigation to find out who at the Times was responsible for obtaining and publishing the article. One Knesset member went so far as to suggest that Israel might close the Times’ Israel bureau.

In the end, the Times relented and changed the description of Mr Barghouti to meet Israel’s demands.

Haaretz’s columnist, Chemi Salev, termed the entire effort a “ritual of diversion and denial”. By focusing on the description of Mr Barghouti and not the content of his piece, Israel was able to “accentuate the insignificant at the expense of the essence”, he said. “First”, he wrote, “you manufacture righteous indignation over a minor fault, then you assault the newspaper and cast doubt on its motives. In this way the Israeli public is absolved of the need to actually contend with the gist of the article. In this way, anyone who wants to address Barghouti’s claims is seen as collaborating with a terrorist and enabling terror.”

As for the protesters, Israel promised a harsh response and no negotiations. Mr Barghouti and other “ring leaders” have been placed under solitary confinement. Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman said that the government should be firm even if it meant letting prisoners die. At the same time, a media campaign has been launched to discredit Mr Barghouti as a political opportunist.

What Israel will not acknowledge and is attempting to obfuscate is that its treatment of Palestinians is deplorable. Its 50-year-long illegal occupation has driven captive people to resist their systematic oppressive violence. In the process, Israel terms every Palestinian response “terrorism”.

To be sure, there are horrific acts of terrorism that have been committed by Palestinians that must be condemned. But even here Israel is not blameless. Doesn’t bombing civilian targets and killing scores of civilians or systematically starving Gaza into submission qualify as terror? Doesn’t confiscating land, demolishing homes and centuries-old olive orchards fit the definition of terrorism?

At the root of all the violence is the occupation. What should be noted, however, is that like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a mass prisoners’ strike is an inherently non-violent protest. This, Israel refuses to accept. Because it can admit no wrongdoing and because of its obsessive need to control all aspects of Palestinian life, any resistance becomes a threat and, therefore, an “act of terror” that must be punished. It is this behaviour that breeds resistance. And this deadly cycle will continue until Israel recognises that its victims are real people who will not submit but will continue to assert their rights.

Dr James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa