Tel Aviv Diary: Why Barghouti Is on Hunger Strike

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Jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, center, is accompanied by Israeli prison guards in Jerusalem Magistrate's Court, on January 25, 2012. Marc Schulman writes that Barghouti has organized a hunger strike among Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails primarily as part of his bid to strengthen his leadership within the Palestinian movement. At the moment, he does not have support from all the Fatah prisoners, nor from the Hamas prisoners in Israeli prisons. Ammar Awad/reuters

On Tuesday, Israel emerged from its weeklong Passover holiday to be greeted by a controversy over an opinion piece printed by The New York Times.

On Monday, 1,000 Palestinian prisoners—most of whom had been convicted of acts of terrorism—began a hunger strike, demanding better conditions in Israeli prisons. The strike is being led by Marwan Barghouti, leader of the Tanzim terrorist groups during the second intifada.

Timed in concert with the beginning of the strike, The New York Times published an op-ed piece written by Barghouti on why he decided to lead the strike.

The Israeli political world went ballistic, with every leader trying his or her best to outdo one another's attacks on The New York Times. Yair Lapid, the effective head of the opposition, wrote an op-ed article in The Times of Israel, stating:

Publishing an opinion piece full of invented horror stories, the Times neglected to tell its readers that the author is a murderer, convicted on multiple counts in a civilian court.

In Newsweek, an article by Elliot Abrams questioned why The New York Times failed to mention the crimes for which Barghouti was convicted.

Related: Elliott Abrams: Why did the Times give a Palestinian killer a free pass?

By Tuesday evening, criticism had reached such a level that the Times added a statement at the end of the Barghouti op-ed:

This 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.

Even the New York Times’s public editor wrote an article criticizing the paper's original decision, choosing not to list the crimes for which Barghouti has been convicted, overlooking the context that knowledge of that information would provide.

While The New York Times makes a convenient punching bag for criticism, little has actually been reported on Barghouti’s claims, who he really is, or, for that matter, whether the strike is likely to change anything—either inside or outside the prison.

It should be noted at the outset that Barghouti's case is a complicated one. He is popular among Palestinians. He is a longtime supporter of the concept of the two-state solution—i.e., a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Barghouti is definitively a possible successor to current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Related: Elliott Abrams: Trump's Israeli settlements policy is the way to go

On the other hand, Barghouti was one of the clear leaders of the second intifada, an intifada characterized by suicide bombings that killed hundreds of Israeli civilians throughout Israel.

(On a personal note, during this period, bombs went off killing dozens at a café across the street from where my daughter was living at the time and in a university cafeteria she had passed through a few minutes before. I, therefore, have no personal sympathy toward Barghouti.)

I can also say that while I personally hope we can find a way to extricate ourselves from occupying Palestinians on the West Bank—and believe, however well intentioned an occupation is, it can never be moral for the occupiers or good for the occupied—the one area that doesn't keep me up at night is how we treat our convicted terrorists.

Compared with American supermax prisons, conditions at Israeli prisons are excellent. The list of demands that Barghouti's group has published centers on having access to a public phone, having a second monthly visit by relatives and bringing back academic studies that were once available.

Barghouti’s article was full of generalities relating to the occupation, including claims he was mistreated when he was younger. Some of the few specifics in the article were a claim that 90 percent of accused Palestinians are convicted by Israeli courts and an allegation that Israel violates international law, creating special hardships on families by “transporting the prisoners” to jails inside Israel proper.

Of course, the casual reader might be forgiven for not knowing that the maximum distance from Ramallah (the center of the West Bank) to any of Israel’s prisons is less than 100 miles, a distance that relatives of those arrested in New York City would be pleased to travel, instead of the 340 miles to Attica prison, not to mention those needing to travel to the supermax in Fremont, Colorado.

As to the question of the rate of convictions of accused Palestinians, in the United States the conviction rate in federal court is approximately 95 percent.

Barghouti has organized the strike primarily as part of his bid to strengthen his leadership within the Palestinian movement. At the moment, he does not have support from all the Fatah prisoners, nor from the Hamas prisoners in Israeli prisons. He does have support on the Palestinian street, certainly among the many who have family in Israeli prisons.  

I am certain our prisons are no panacea and that our occupation clearly creates human rights abuses. However, considering the state of the Middle East at the moment, the treatment of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails is barely on anyone's radar.

To those who long to find a way out of our conflict with the Palestinians and yearn for the day our children will no longer have to be occupiers in the West Bank, embracing an individual directly responsible for the murder of numerous Israeli civilians is not the way.

I have no doubt that when we eventually achieve peace, Barghouti and others who committed murder against our brethren will be pardoned. But until that time, terrorists and their supporters should be treated as the terrorists that they are.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.