Jailed Palestinian activist Marwan Barghouti is back in the headlines this week after launching a massive hunger strike involving 1,100 prisoners throughout Israel, a move that could position him to be the next leader of a Palestinian state.
Long beloved by Palestinians and decried as a terrorist by Israelis, the 57-year-old Barghouti is behind bars since 2005 serving five consecutive life sentences related to murder charges. He launched the strike Monday via a controversial New York Times op-ed, and it has prompted mass public marches in support every day since. By leading the strike, analysts say, Barghouti has ably positioned himself as a serious candidate to lead the Palestinian people, with many in Israeli, Palestinian and international political circles suggesting his role in the strike is directed as much at Israel’s prison system as it is at current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who at 82 will soon need a successor.
Inmates are calling on Israel to improve conditions and guarantee prisoner rights such as more monthly visits for family members, prevention of visits being cancelled for security reasons, and an end to detention without trial. The demands have been heard before, but Barghouti’s backing have given them new weight and international attention, prompting many analysts to question the controversial leader’s true motivations behind his involvement. The careful timing of the strike — launched to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory — has only further fueled that speculation.
Barghouti rose to prominence during the second intifada as the architect and senior leader of al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade. Israeli authorities have long claimed that Barghouti is responsible for several acts of terrorism, and he was finally arrested in Ramallah by Israeli Defense Forces in 2002. Two years later he was convicted on five counts of murder. He refused legal representation, claiming the trial was illegal and illegitimate, and was sentenced to five consecutive life sentences and an additional 40 years in prison. During the first intifada, Barghouti was a strong supporter of the peace process and non-violent resistance.
Sources close to Barghouti outright deny he has any ulterior motives with the hunger strike, however. Speaking exclusively to VICE News, Barghouti’s son Qassam was emphatic that his father is leading the strike in order to help his fellow prisoners.
“There is no need for a hunger strike if Marwan was thinking of himself,” Qassam said. “His position in the Palestinian leadership is not the issue here; the issue is another battle the Palestinians have to go through in order to get their freedom, sovereignty, and independence.”
Analysts have reason to believe Barghouti may have greater political ambitions, however. Despite being behind bars for the last decade, the controversial leader has continued to be seen as a national symbol of pride and is regularly considered one of the most popular leaders among Palestinians. This sentiment was reflected by his recent election to Fatah’s Central Committee — the highest decision-making body in that political party.
A poll conducted in March by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research center showed that if Barghouti were to run in a presidential election against Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, he would win overwhelmingly. The same is true if he were to run against Abbas.
This latest poll reveals that Barghouti’s popularity has steadily grown in the Palestinian territories, clearly giving him the most public support to be Palestine’s next president – despite being behind bars. A 2014 Palestinian Center for Public Opinion poll showed that he would defeat President Abbas by a smaller margin, showing he has gained momentum over the years.
But Palestinian leadership remains steadfast there is no power struggle at play behind Barghouti leading the prison strike. Dr. Ghassan Khatib, a former senior member in the Palestinian government, told VICE News that Fatah’s senior leadership not only supports the hunger strike but also is coordinating with Barghouti and the prisoners.
“This strike can bring no harm to the Palestinian leadership, including Abbas. It is a consensus issue among all Palestinians and all political factions. The main objective is to achieve the particular demands of the strike. Barghouti is coordinating the strike with Fatah leadership; I don’t think the motive is political.”
Even with growing public support and international attention, Barghouti faces a number of challenges in becoming the next Palestinian leader.
President Abbas has so far been unwilling to name a successor and there is no timetable for an upcoming election even though he is several years past his term. Media site Al-Monitor notes that in recent months Abbas has taken steps to isolate Barghouti from several political appointments — most notably, failing to consider him for the position of deputy leader of Fatah — a decision that angered some in the party. Barghouti would also have to overcome competition from Abbas allies, Saeb Erekat and Jibril Rajoub and Abbas’ former security chief and current arch rival Mohammed Dahlan. Not to mention the fact he is serving serving five consecutive life sentences.
Bourghouti’s rise to power would also anger the PLO’s Israeli negotiating partners, many of whom have denounced him as a terrorist and incapable of ever being a partner for peace.
Several high-level Israeli politicians shared their distaste for Barghouti this week, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who said “calling Barghouti a ‘political leader’ is like calling Assad a ‘children’s doctor.’” And on Monday, Yesh Atid leader, and prime minister contender, Yair Lapid published an op-ed in The Times of Israel in which he accused Barghouti of continuing to support violence. “Barghouti doesn’t only believe in violence, he also believes that it’s permissible to lie. He believes in the approach, which typifies terror organizations, that the West is weak and naïve and so our media and good intentions should be cynically abused to attack us from within,” Lapid wrote.
But not all politicians in Israel are so quick to slam the door on Barghouti as a potential leader of the Palestinian people.
Mossi Raz, secretary general of the left-wing Meretz party, told VICE News he’d be willing to work with Barghouti. “Although I am aware of his violent past, I believe that Barghouti could make peace with Israel. I can say that because I know him personally.”
Thousands have marched across Palestinian cities since the hunger strike began Monday, and Qassam Barghouti said that large protests are expected to be held on a daily basis for as long as the hunger strike lasts. Palestinian news agency Ma’an reports that several Palestinian factions could join the strike (including Islamic Jihad and Hamas). If that were to happen and Palestinians continue to march in large droves, celebrating Barghouti’s efforts, President Abbas could soon find himself in a serious dilemma — facing diminished personal authority, an ascendent Barghouti, and an increased Hamas presence.
On Wednesday the White House announced that President Abbas will meet with President Trump on May 3. If the situation in the prison spills out onto the streets, instead of talking about greater peace in the region, Trump and Abbas may find themselves focused on the Palestinian leader’s ability to control his own party.
Raphael Gellar is a freelancer journalist based in Israel.