The PA’s lack of support for hunger striking prisoners, together with its security coordination with Israel during ‘Operation Brother’s Keeper,’ are further deteriorating its credibility among Palestinians.
Reports on a deal that would end the hunger strike by some 70 Palestinians prisoners broke in the Hebrew media on Tuesday night and has been confirmed in the two days that passed since. According to Ynet News, the prisoners will return to eat, and in return, some punitive measures that Israeli Prison Service placed on them, such as separation from each other and fines, will be cancelled
Assuming that there are no other articles to the agreement – and according to the PA’s minister for prisoners, there aren’t – this is a complete victory for the Israeli government and the tough line it has maintained throughout the strike. It’s not only that the strike ended without any achievements for the hunger strikers, one can’t imagine a similar protest breaking out in the coming months, or even years.
The prisoner issue is one of the most painful for Palestinian society, and with this deal Israel has bought itself relative quiet on this front for some time to come. One might speak of a Palestinian success in creating some awareness on the issue of administrative detention, but even this achievement is balanced by the success of Israeli hawks, who believe that every Palestinian action must be met with a forceful response.
There is nothing surprising about seeing the more powerful side winning over the weaker party. But there are lessons which are in line with other trends on the ground.
The hunger strike included roughly 100 prisoners, and around 70 of them were and still are hospitalized. Some stopped eating for over two months, sustaining themselves only on water and minerals. This was a tremendous human effort, carried out simultaneously by dozens of people, and under the toughest of conditions. The prisoners were handcuffed to — and isolated in — their hospital beds.
I think that the strike failed for three main reasons: the line the Israeli government took, which made it clear the government would let prisoners die (or force-feed them, a procedure which also puts the prisoner’s life at risk); the kidnapping of three Israeli teens in the West Bank, which took the media’s attention away from the strike and removed whatever willingness to compromise Israel might have had; and the lack of support for the prisoners from the Palestinian Authority.
The latter is worth paying attention to. A common complaint Palestinians make against the PA has to do with the “double game” it plays with non-violent resistance to the occupation: in public the PA endorses it but in private it contains it. It’s clear that the PA didn’t make any serious effort to back the hunger strike or to promote its message in the world. That allowed the Netanyahu government to conclude that even if a prisoner dies, mass protest wouldn’t erupt and the overall price Israel pays would remain relatively low.
This is also true on other fronts of the popular struggle. The Palestinian Authority has supported and even financed protests and other direct action initiatives, but at the same time it has been very careful not to allow them to spread. Demonstrations of several dozen people in the same villages – Bil’in, Ni’ilin, Nabi Saleh, Al-Ma’asara etc. – are welcomed because they maintain an appearance of resistance to the occupation. But mass protests, especially in the cities, would make things much more difficult for the PA, and could threaten its existence even before it ever challenged Israel.
The PA is (also) an agent of the status quo. Mahmoud Abbas wants to continue his diplomatic chess game with Israel, but anything that goes beyond that – like the prisoners’ strike – threatens him politically and therefore remains undesirable. (Abbas is right about one thing though – widespread, active resistance will take a deadly toll on the Palestinians long before it brings them any gains.)
The problem with this modus operandi is that there is growing anger at the PA, as last weekend’s protest in Ramallah clearly showed. With every crisis like the prisoners strike or the security coordination during Israel’s crackdown on Hamas, the legitimacy of the PA takes another blow. We might be closer to the Authority’s collapse than people think, and even if it doesn’t collapse, its ability to effectively carry out its role as Israel’s traffic cop will diminish more and more.
One thing created along with the hunger strike is still around, however: a new Israeli bill allowing doctors to force-feed prisoners. This piece of legislation might be completed in the Knesset now or it might be frozen until the need for it arises again, but the ground has been prepared and a parliamentary majority secured. Another draconian measure has been added to the tool box Israel uses to control the Palestinians.
And here is another bitter irony. Due to operation “Brother’s Keeper” the amount of administrative detainees in Israeli prisons – namely, people who are held without trial for weeks, months or years – has doubled. At the same time, we learned that Israel has reinstated the notorious practice of destroying terror suspects’ homes.
Thus Israel registers more and more violent, tactical victories on its way to an overall defeat. The need to control millions of people who lack political or human rights will not disappear. On the contrary, maintaining it will become more and more costly, both politically and morally. The descent down the slope of occupation continues, and there is no end in sight.