The (not-so-hungry) Hunger Strike.

I took a gap year from University in the early days of the Second Intifada.  At that time, sadly, there were terrorist attacks occurring in Israel, sometimes on a daily basis.  In those days, there was one Palestinian terrorist whose name kept popping up again and again – Marwan Barghouti.

credit: 972mag.com

Barghouti had risen to “fame” in the First Intifada and then after 2000, he went on to become a leader of the Second or Al Aqsa Intifada.  He was often interviewed on various cable networks as the face of the Tanzim, a paramilitary offshoot of Fatah that had been in training for war during the northern summer of that year, even as President Clinton was hosting peace talks at Camp David between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat.

There was one particular interview on BBC World News in which Barghouti swore that his people were trying to defend themselves and they had no weapons.  Becky Anderson, who was reporting for the BBC in those early days of the Second Intifada could barely keep a straight face as gunfire blared from two different directions.  She seemed incredulous and it was clear to the audience that the Tanzim leader was lying as he faced the camera.  There and then in my eyes, Marwan Barghouti, like his leader Arafat, had zero credibility and none of that has changed over the years.

Barghouti’s name was attached to a host of terrorist attacks against Israelis – soldiers and civilians alike.  Some thought that he had a hand in the lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah but in any event, the law finally caught up with him in 2002 when he was arrested by the IDF.  He was convicted in 2004 on five counts of murder – four Israelis and a Greek Orthodox Monk, and is currently in an Israeli prison serving five life sentences.  Barghouti refused to present a defence to the charges but the evidence against him was overwhelming.

Barghouti continued to exert great influence from within prison and over the years the man with the blood of innocents on his hands became a symbol for the Palestinian people.   even compared him to Nelson Mandela, but a Mandela he is definitely not.  If I were a South African, I would be insulted by the comparison in the same way they should be offended by the misappropriation of the term “apartheid” as a description of a situation that bears no resemblance at all to what actually went on in apartheid South Africa.  Comparing the ANC struggle to terrorist thugs such as Barghouti spits in the face of Mandela’s legacy.

Despite the lies and the multiple murder convictions, Barghouti is continually given the benefit of the doubt and international legitimacy of sorts, as was the case a few weeks ago when he was given Op-Ed space in the New York Times.  His article, “Why we are on hunger strikes in Israel’s prisons” had a short note attached at the end which described him as a “Palestinian leader and parliamentarian”.  They might have added that he was a delightful boy scout leader but nobody at the NYT thought it worthwhile alerting readers to the face that he was also a convicted murderer.

After much uproar however, the article was updated to include the following:

“This article explained the writer’s prison sentence but neglected to provide sufficient context by stating the offences of which he was convicted.  They were five counts of murder and membership in a terrorist organisation.  Mr. Barghouti declined to offer a defence at his trial and refused to recognise the Israeli court’s jurisdiction and legitimacy”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hit the nail on the head when he said,

“I read, on Sunday, the article in the New York Times that presents arch-terrorist Marwan Barghouti as a ‘parliamentarian and leader’.  The paper recanted after we pointed it out to them.  Calling Barghouti a ‘political leader’ is like calling Assad a ‘pediatrician’.  They are murderers and terrorists.  We will never lose our sense of clarity because we are on the side of justice and they are on the side that is neither just nor moral.”

Even the NYT public editor, Liz Spayd, weighed in on the subject:

“This isn’t a new issue for the Opinion section. I have written before on the need to more fully identify the biography and credentials of authors, especially details that help people make judgements about the opinions they’re reading.  Do the authors of the pieces have any conflicts of interest that could challenge their credibility?  Are they who they say they are, and can editors vouch for their fidelity?”

On the subject of the credibility of the author and full disclosure, much of the media has been silent on the real purpose of the prisoners’ hunger strike which was supposedly a protest about “unfair and degrading conditions” in Israeli jails.

The truth however, is that even security prisoners like Barghouti are treated relatively well by all standards.  The basic rights of prisoners are mainly set out in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.  The entitlements include the right to meet with an attorney (within a professional framework), receive medical treatment, religious rights, basic living conditions (such as hot water, showers and sanitation), proper ventilation, electric infrastructure and education.  Inmates receive all of these entitlements and more, and they also received regular Red Cross visits until the International Committee of the Red Cross cancelled them last year due to budget cuts (i.e. for a reason that has nothing to do with Israel).

So why exactly are they striking?  As Israeli Public Security Minister Gild Erdan stated,

“we’ve said all along, the terrorists’ hunger strike isn’t about their prison conditions, but only about Barghouti’s desire to bolster his status in preparation for the day after Abu Mazen (PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas) … Barghouti is cynically exploiting the terrorists for a hunger strike for which they are paying and will pay a heavy price, while he himself can’t restrain his own appetites”.

The reference to Barghouti’s appetite is not only to his appetite for power but also for food… even when he is supposedly leading hundreds of prisoners in a hunger strike.  Last week, footage emerged of Barghouti eating cookies and other salted snacks and then trying to hide the evidence by flushing the wrappers down the toilets of his prison cell.  This is nothing new with Barghouti – he has been caught out before.

It is regrettable that so many in the mainstream media allow certain fictions about the conflict to gain currency so that a person like Barghouti can be falsely invested with a Mandela-like image of a courageous leader of men on a hunger strike.

But this would-be leader is no better than the corrupt and dysfunctional Palestinian leadership of the present and the past.  Leaders who are happy to let their people fester in filthy refugee camps while they continue to line their pockets with cash, living it up in mansions either at home or even abroad.  Leaders who hide out in underground bunkers beneath hospitals while sending rockets and missiles into Israel and putting an entire civilian population in harm’s way.

And just as those leaders before him have continually deceived the world as well as their own people, so too has Marwan Barghouti allowed a generation of Palestinians to believe he is the next great hope for them, and yet from the depths of his prison cell, all he really cares about is from where will his next cookie come?

One could expect little more from the man who once stared into the lens of a BBC camera and told the world a host of bald-faced lies.

Emily Gian is the Media & Advocacy Director for the Zionist Federation of Australia. 

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