On Palestinian Prisoners Day, an annual observance held on April 17, about 1,000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons declared a hunger strike demanding better conditions and treatment by prison authorities. The strike, led by jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, has a tangible, practical goal of improving prison conditions, including installing public phones, increasing family visits, improving medical treatment, ending solitary confinement, and reinstating prisoners’ access to high school and higher education programs. However, more than simply confronting Israeli prison authorities, the strike reflects and entrenches internal Palestinian political fissures—not just the ubiquitous Fatah–Hamas competition for hegemony, but also the intra-Fatah conflict between Marwan Barghouti’s supporters and opponents. Optimistic observers had initially hoped that the strike could serve as a rallying call to unite the fragmented Palestinian political landscape. Yet, as it enters its second month, the strike instead largely maps onto and contributes to Palestinian factionalism.           

The Israeli Prisons Service (IPS) currently holds thousands of Palestinian “security prisoners.” The term officially refers to “a prisoner who was convicted and is serving a sentence for an offense, or who is detained for suspicion of committing an offense, which by its nature or circumstances is defined as a distinctly security offense, or that the motivation for its perpetration stems from nationalistic reasons.” When and how to apply this designation is not based on legislation but is up to the IPS to decide, and precisely what counts as a security offense is rather murky. Official IPS publications list a whole set of such offenses, noting that security prisoners “include men, women, and youth who were on their way to commit suicide attacks and were caught by the security services, terrorists who were planning to execute mass attacks but changed their minds a few minutes before, … people who sent attackers, planned attacks, prepared explosives and devices, high-ranking officials in Palestinian terrorist organizations, and others.” Included in the category of “others” are detainees who have thrown stones, participated in unruly demonstrations, posted inflammatory poems or social media statuses, been members in political organizations Israel designates as “terrorist” or “illegal,” and even at times just been family members of people in such organizations.  

The number of prisoners spiked significantly during the first Palestinian intifada in 1987–1993, averaging 4,000 prisoners. Following the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993, many prisoners were released, and by the year 2000 their numbers dropped to about 800. The second intifada in 2000 prompted a resurgence in arrests, reaching a peak of nearly 10,000 security prisoners in 2007. As of May 2017, there were 6,189 such prisoners, constituting about 30 percent of the entire prison population in Israel. Because of their designation as a security threat, the prisoners are held separately from regular prisoners—mostly within Israeli territory, in violation of the fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the transfer of detainees out of an occupied territory—and their conditions, rights, and privileges are different from those of the general prison population.  

When arrested, Palestinian security prisoners are sent to wards in accordance with their organizational affiliations, for example Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. They hold biannual elections to select a spokesperson to represent each organization in dealings with the prison administration, holding Israel accountable to Articles 70 and 102 of the third Geneva Convention, which grant prisoners of war the right to elect their own representatives. In general, the leaders of each faction enjoy some autonomy in running the daily life of its members within the prison. This structure has also allowed them to coordinate collective action such as strikes or hunger strikes to extract concessions from prison authorities on living conditions, treatment, and privileges—including direct fund transfers that factions use to buy products in the prison’s commissary.

The evolution of this system of affiliation and representation stems first from the prisoners’ self-identification as political prisoners, rather than security prisoners as they are defined by the IPS. The system is reinforced by Israel’s tacit acknowledgment of this state of affairs and recognition that it is effective at maintaining order within prisons. In addition, separating factions also helps entrench internal Palestinian splits, especially between Fatah and Hamas. While the prisons have effectively negotiated intra-Palestinian détentes in the past, the current ongoing hunger strike demonstrates the extent to which factionalism in Palestinian politics maps onto—and is fueled by—the prison system.  

For instance, the politics of the prisoners’ hunger strike reflect and entrench the Fatah–Hamas divide. Hamas is not officially participating in the strike, but has instead decided to allow its prisoners to make individual decisions about whether or not to join. This is due to the fact that Marwan Barghouti and the strike’s leadership did not consult, coordinate, or reach consensus with other Palestinian factions before rushing to launch the strike, whose participants are predominately Fatah members. Accordingly, Hamas leaders worry that Fatah could capitalize on the strike to bolster its hegemony over the Palestinian street. Hamas already finds it difficult to recruit or mobilize supporters due to the effective ongoing efforts of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to circumscribe and ban Hamas’s social and political activism in the West Bank and to dismantle its infrastructure there. In addition, the PA continues to escalate its pressure on Hamas by imposing sanctions on Gaza aimed at weakening the movement’s hold in the strip. Fatah–Hamas relations are reached an even lower point after Hamas refused to participate in the local council elections in the West Bank on May 13. Under these conditions, Fatah–Hamas collaboration on the strike is extremely unlikely.

The factional prison structure also mirrors the intense fragmentation within Fatah outside the prisons. Most of those who have joined the current hunger strike are Fatah members, and the strike itself was organized by Marwan Barghouti, a member of the movement’s Central Committee. However, Fatah itself is divided over whether to participate. As of April 24, fewer than 1,500 of the 3,500 Fatah detainees held in Israeli jails have heeded the call to strike. Importantly, Fatah leadership in the Rimon, Negev, and Megiddo prisons, which hold more than 1,800 Fatah detainees, have not officially endorsed the strike due to their disagreements with Barghouti. Moreover, these leaders convinced the Central Committee to withdraw its initial directive making participation mandatory for all Fatah prisoners, instead leaving the decision to join or not to the local leadership in each prison.

Developments within the prisons have also worsened the deep internal conflicts within Fatah more broadly. Some in Fatah fear that if the strike successfully achieves its objectives, this will strengthen the faction loyal to Barghouti in the movement and among Palestinian public opinion. One pro-Barghouti faction within the movement and the PA has publicly called to support the strike, while other factions are trying to contain or even sabotage the initiative. Fadwa Barghouti, Marwan Barghouti’s wife and a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, has accused certain Fatah leaders of trying to sabotage the strike. She further charged that the Fatah leadership was engaged in a conspiracy—under pressure from Israel—to marginalize her husband by refusing to give him a leadership position in the Central Committee even though he attained the highest number of votes in the last internal elections for committee members, which were held in December 2016 at the end of the seventh Fatah Congress. As a result of this internal competition, the Palestinian Authority—while it has expressed moral support for the hunger strike—has also worked on the ground to limit the spread of popular actions in solidarity, which risk triggering widespread protests in West Bank’s cities and refugee camps.

The PA’s efforts to contain protests in solidarity with the strike is motivated not only by antipathy toward Barghouti but also by its fear of destabilizing the already fragile security situation. Fatah is confronting two contradictory desires. The movement would like to reinvigorate its resistance credentials by claiming ownership of the strike and escalating a “controlled” popular mobilization in the West Bank against the occupation. However, PA security services are also worried that an escalating civil resistance campaign could get out of hand, leading to security chaos that Hamas could exploit, thus compounding the authority’s already mounting crisis of legitimacy. Mahmoud Abbas and the PA security services have therefore doubled down on security coordination with Israel in an effort to maintain control over the Palestinian street. They have also stepped up their effort to reach a resolution to the strike through direct negotiation between the Palestinian and Israeli security authorities—a path the striking prisoners have so far rejected, insisting that the negotiations be between prison authorities and the leaders of the strike.    

Because of the vast numbers of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons and their internal organizational structure, the hunger strike could in theory facilitate significant and successful Palestinian collective action. The prisoners’ great legitimacy, support from the Palestinian street, and system of representation and organization within the prisons have allowed them to extract concessions from Israel and negotiate détentes among Palestinian factions in the past. However, such success would rely on a clear consensus within Fatah, as well as consensus and joint coordination with different Palestinian factions. As it currently stands, the strike is embroiled in and entrenching internal Palestinian political splits rather than transcending or defusing them.    

Lihi Ben Shitrit is an assistant professor at the School of Public and International Affairs, University of Georgia, Athens. Mahmoud Jaraba is a researcher and lecturer at Erlangen Center for Islam and Law in Europe (EZIRE) and the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Germany.