On Sunday, Israeli prison officials released video footage that they say show a Palestinian activist and strike organizer sneaking snacks in the toilet area of his solitary confinement cell. The prisoner, Marwan Barghouti, is the leader of a mass hunger strike of incarcerated Palestinians, who claim Israel has been denying their basic human rights. More than 1,000 imprisoned Palestinians began the hunger strike in mid-April, although some have since dropped out. The strikers are demanding increased family visits, termination of solitary confinement, improved health care, and better access to education.
Israeli officials say the video shows Barghouti eating cookies on April 27 and a candy bar on Friday in the Kishon Prison, where he is being held. But anonymous sources within the Israel Prison Service told Haaretz that they had "set him up in an attempt to see whether Barghouti was really sticking to the hunger strike." The full video, which is close to ten minutes long, contains only partial timestamps and doesn't clearly feature the face of the prisoner. The release of the video comes only a few weeks after members of Israel's far right Ichud Leumi (National Union) party taunted the Palestinian hunger strikers by staging a barbecue outside Ofer Prison in the West Bank and offering passersby a variety of free meats.
Barghouti is currently serving five life sentences plus 40 years of imprisonment after he was found guilty of five counts of murder and one of attempted murder. He was also convicted of being a member of a terrorist organization, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade. At his trial in 2004, Barghouti refused to recognize the Israeli court's jurisdiction over him and declined to offer a defense. The convictions arose from several incidents during the Second Intifada; the Israeli government accused Barghouti of authorizing and organizing the drive-by shooting of a Greek Orthodox monk and the shooting of multiple Israeli civilians at a seafood market in Tel Aviv. He was originally charged with 37 charges, but the court threw out 33 of them, citing a lack of evidence.
Israel's public security minister, Gilad Erdan, said the strike is a publicity bid and that Barghouti is secretly eating in his cell. In an official statement, Erdan said, "Barghouti is a murderer and hypocrite who urged his fellow prisoners to strike and suffer while he ate behind their back. Israel will not give in to extortion and pressure from terrorists." MUNCHIES has reached out to Israeli Prison Service for comment, but has yet to hear back.
Palestinian activists and allies insist the video reveals nothing, is undated, and may not even depict Barghouti at all. Barghouti's wife said the videos are "fabricated" and "despicable", while the Palestinian National Committee for the Support of the Prisoners' Strike claimed the footage was from 2004.
MUNCHIES reached out to Miko Peled, an Israeli peace activist and writer whose father was an Israeli army major general and a member of parliament. He told us, "I watched the video twice and I cannot verify that this is indeed Marwan Barghouti because his face isn't shown at all. Furthermore, all we see is a man in a cell walking to the restroom and it is impossible to tell what he is doing, and frankly when a man is in the restroom no one should be following or watching him. It is certainly not clear that he is eating."
Like the many Palestinians protesting the release of the video, Peled believes the more important story has little to do with whether Barghouti actually ate or not. Peled told MUNCHIES, "Whether he is eating or not is immaterial. The world should concern itself is with the fact that over 7,000 Palestinian political prisoners are imprisoned by Israel in violation of international law." With regard to the prisoners' complaints about treatment in Israeli prisons, Peled said, "All efforts should be made to see that their demands are met and that the injustice that has placed them in prison is reversed and they are free men again. Israel must be placed under the watchful eye of the world and scrutinized and criticized, not a lone, innocent man living in a prison cell that is unfit for humans."
Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian-American journalist who is the co-founder of Electronic Intifada, agrees. He told MUNCHIES, "What we do know is that Israel has tried to smash the hunger strike by placing its leaders and dozens of prisoners, including Marwan Barghouti, in solitary confinement, which means he is completely under Israel's control and nobody could verify what his situation is, at least not very easily." Abunimah also said, "Israel is flagrantly violating the 4th Geneva Convention," which "prohibits exhibiting and parading prisoners in a humiliating manner." Claims of violating this provision of the Geneva Convention are often raised when prisoners are surreptitiously filmed, especially if those films are released to the public to discredit or ridicule the prisoners.
Barghouti recently made headlines for an op-ed he penned for the New York Times. The article, in which he made his case for the hunger strike, caused a backlash when some readers—and some of the Times' own staff—claimed that the paper had engaged in a "distorted characterization of Barghouti" by not initially stating the reason for his imprisonment in the article.