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What prisoners mean to the Palestinian Authority

Palestinians gather in front of the UNESCO office during a demonstration in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners in Israel jails in Gaza City, Gaza on 9 May 2017 [Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency]
Palestinians gather in front of the UNESCO office during a demonstration in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners in Israel jails in Gaza City, Gaza on 9 May 2017 [Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency]

Nearly a month ago, Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons started a hunger strike, but since the beginning of the strike, we haven't seen or heard a clear position from the Palestinian Authority or its head, Mahmoud Abbas, which proves the PA is supporting the strike, adopting the demands of the prisoners, or trying to add pressure to achieve their demands. All we saw were some very general statements by Palestinian officials at low levels calling upon the international community to play its role in alleviating the suffering of the prisoners. Such statements could be made by any Arab or foreign official sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but it is illogical to see them coming from those to whom the cause belongs.

It is no longer a secret that the Palestinian Authority and the president were not happy about the strike and that they did not encourage it. On the contrary, there were attempts to obstruct it. This was reflected in the modest number of strikers at the beginning, where only 700 out of nearly 6,000 prisoners in Israeli jails agreed to go on strike at first. This was caused by Palestinian division which infiltrated into the prisoners' movement, whether between Fatah and Hamas or within Fatah itself after some members of Fatah tried to thwart the strike called for by Fatah leader in prison, Marwan Barghouthi.

Read: The Freedom and Dignity hunger strike completes its first month

The relative success of the strike, however, and the fact that other prisoners joined in, have led the PA to deal with it differently. It did not fully support it, but rather used some words of solidarity with it until the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with American President Donald Trump in the White House. There, the US president sent a direct request in regards to the Palestinian prisoners and how the PA deals with them, calling for the cessation of the payment of salaries to them, as part of good will gestures required by the American administration to advance the peace process.

The US demand has, so far, not been met by Palestinians. However, it appears to have led to more caution when dealing with the issue of prisoners, especially the hunger strike. This has become clear in the Fatah Central Committee's statement, which at first called for Fatah prisoners to commit to the hunger strike and join other strikers, but was later withdrawn by Fatah.

Many stories were made up to justify the withdrawal of the statement, including lack of quorum of the Central Committee at the time the statement was issued, and therefore, it lacking consensus. This is true; however, the consensus here is not from the Central Committee members themselves, but perhaps from the current Palestinian leadership, especially since the statement is contrary to what has been requested by the Americans, which is becoming more evident through daily Israeli leaks. This means that what Abu Mazen and Trump agreed upon, or what was requested of the visiting Palestinian president, goes beyond the issue of prisoners and their hunger strike to something greater, especially the issue of controlling the Palestinian street in the West Bank.

Read: 1,500 Palestinian prisoners continue hunger strike

The latest report published by the Walah news website on Saturday, and which was based on Israeli and Palestinian security sources, revealed that the PA's security services are currently carrying out a wide campaign throughout the West Bank to achieve three objectives: to collect weapons from all those who do not work in the security forces, to carry out large-scale arrests against Hamas activists and to take security measures to prevent friction between the Palestinian youth and occupation forces, especially during the Palestinian mass protests supporting the strike of prisoners and anti-settlement activities.

There are other details which, if added to the above with regard to the Fatah statement and the attempts to spoil the strike, not only indicate that the prisoners are not part of the PA's interests, but rather the PA sees them as obstacles to the vague "understanding" between Abbas and Trump.

Translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, 14 May 2017

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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