Marwan Barghouti, the convicted terrorist killer, and a contender for the Palestinian leadership, is once again making news. This time, the New York Times enthusiastically published his Op Ed, leaving out the essential fact as to why he is in an Israeli prison to begin with. Barghouti is serving five life sentences in prison for helping murder five people and launching a failed suicide bombing. The five people murdered were Israelis.
In his Op Ed published last Sunday (April 16, 2017) under the title “Why We Are on Hunger Strike in Israel’s Prisons,” Barghouti charged “Having spent the last 15 years in an Israeli prison, I have been both a witness to and a victim of Israel’s illegal system of mass arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment of Palestinian prisoners. After exhausting all other options, I decided there was no choice but to resist these abuses by going on a hunger strike.”
The hunger-striking prisoners demand that the Israeli prison authorities provide them with additional TV channels, more magazines and newspapers, an increase in family visitation, end to solitary confinement, better health care, and greater access to education. These extraordinary demands by the prisoners are far-fetched considering that many of the prisoners are convicted terrorist murderers. The families of Israelis killed or injured by these terrorists believe that these Palestinian terrorists already enjoy many luxuries a lot of ordinary people cannot afford.
The announced hunger-strike by the Palestinian prisoners and the demonstrations by thousands of Palestinians in solidarity with the prisoners is not a spontaneous event, since April 17 is the Palestinian “Day of the Prisoner.”
In his letter to the Times, Barghouti deliberately obfuscated the reason for his severe prison sentence. He simply wrote: “an Israeli court sentenced me to five life sentences and 40 years in prison in a political show trial that was denounced by international observers.” Barghouti was convicted by three judges on May 20, 2004 of personal “involvement in the murder of Yula Hen, shot dead at a Givat Ze’ev gas station in January, 2002, and of (the murder) a Greek Orthodox priest near Ma’aleh Adumim in June, 2002.”
The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that “Barghouti was also convicted of direct responsibility for the murders of Yosef Havi, Elyahu Dahan, and the police officer Selim Barichat, in the shooting attack against the Sea Food Market restaurant in Tel Aviv in March, 2002.
Barghouti was held responsible for sending suicide bombers to detonate an explosives-laden vehicle at the Malcha Mall in Jerusalem. The attempt failed, and the two would-be suicide bombers died when their vehicle exploded prematurely. The court exonerated Barghouti of most of the charges against him. He had been charged with direct responsibility for 37 attacks resulting in the deaths of scores of people.
The prosecution convinced the court of Barghouti’s direct responsibility in only three terror attacks. In most cases however, the court concluded the attacks were carried out at the behest of local leaders of the paramilitary, Tanzim. Although affiliated with Barghouti, who was the official head of the organization, no proof was brought to link the defendant with the decisions.” All considered, the Israeli court was quite lenient toward Barghouti.
Barghouti’s arrest and trial turned him into a well-known and popular figure throughout the Palestinian Territories, second only in popularity to President Arafat, and he was increasingly seen as his heir apparent. Upon Arafat’s death on November 11, 2004, Barghouti called upon Fatah to select its candidate for the Palestinian Presidential election through a process of party primaries. Instead, the Fatah Central Committee nominated Mahmoud Abbas as the Fatah party candidate. In November, 2004, Barghouti announced that he would run against Abbas for the Presidency of the Palestinian Authority as an independent, but later withdrew his candidacy. Barghouti’s influence on PA politics has, if anything, increased with his arrest and imprisonment.
The hunger strike engineered by Barghouti is a political ploy carefully planned and organized by him to demonstrate to the Palestinians and all others his mastery both in skill and stature of Palestinian politics. Barghouti’s timing is not coincidental either. In prison for 15-years, he has shown little support for Palestinian prisoner hunger-strikes. So why now? Feeling that Mahmoud Abbas’ time as President is running out, and Abbas’ efforts to curb Barghouti’s influence in the top echelon of Fatah’s leadership more than likely prompted this move and the letter to the NY Times.
While Barghouti holds a top position in the Fatah party Central Committee, his friends and allies on the Committee were removed, thus effectively isolating him. Barghouti expected Abbas to appoint him to a senior post, perhaps as his deputy. However, in recent months, Abbas has done the opposite. He advanced Jibril Rajoub and Mahmoud Al-Aloul, rather than the imprisoned former head of Fatah’s Tanzim militia.
According to the New York Times (4/17/2017), “Polls suggest that Mr. Barghouti, 57, is the most popular choice to replace Mr. Abbas, 82, even though he is serving five life sentences after he was convicted of being a leader of the second intifada, and of directing attacks that led to the killings of Israelis.”
In Gaza there is depression and hopelessness. Ordinary Gazan are tired of the sacrifices they are demanded to make on behalf of their Hamas rulers. They yearn for peace with dignity. Similarly, in the Palestinian Authority domain, civil society is stifled, the leadership lacks legitimacy, and there is little political, social or economic progress. The Trump presidency in the U.S. is seen here as another blow for Palestinians. It is in such a climate that Barghouti feels himself to be the “deliverer” for the Palestinian people. He has been seen, moreover, by many Palestinian political parties as a “natural” successor to Mahmoud Abbas.
Al-Jazeera reported (4/13/2016) that “Palestinian rights groups, parliamentarians, and party officials have launched a global campaign to nominate Marwan Barghouti, a prominent Fatah leader serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison, for a Nobel Peace Prize.”
Barghouti’s ploy to advance his return to the political central stage through the prisoner’s issue depends on Israel’s Prison Authorities and its political leadership. Should Israel comply with the prisoners’ demands, Barghouti’s position as rightful successor to Abbas will be strengthened. It will demonstrate his ability to bend the Israelis. If, on the other hand, Israel refuses to give in, Barghouti would have caused unnecessary hardship for over a 1,000 prisoners.
One party that surely comes out the loser in this episode is the New York Times, which through its neglect to mention Barghouti’s crimes, was compelled to write an editor’s note saying: “The article explained the writer’s prison sentence but neglected to provide sufficient context by stating the offenses of which he was convicted. They were five counts of murder and membership in a terrorist organization. Mr. Barghouti declined to offer a defense at his trial and refused to recognize the Israeli court’s jurisdiction and legitimacy.”