JERUSALEM – Israel released video footage Sunday purportedly showing Marwan Barghouti, a man Palestinians compare to Nelson Mandela and the leader of an open-ended hunger strike by hundreds of Palestinians incarcerated in Israel, breaking the strike by sneaking a mouthful of cookies.
The hunger strike started on April 17, a fight, the prisoners said, to improve deteriorating living conditions imposed by the Israeli Prison Service on thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli jails. They are asking for more family visits, education options and public telephones, and are protesting unfair trials, detention of children, medical negligence and solitary confinement.
The Israelis have said, however, that the strike is political, and that Barghouti is attempting to assert his leadership — from behind bars — and challenge Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel’s minister for public security, Gilad Erdan, said from the start that he has no intention of negotiating with the prisoners.
On Sunday, the Israel Prison Service, which is in Erdan’s purview, released security footage of the Palestinian leader eating two cookies and a candy bar in the toilet stall of his cell. The video shows Barghouti appearing to try to hide the evidence by flushing the wrapper down the toilet.
“As I said from the very beginning, this hunger strike was never about the conditions of the convicted terrorists, which meet international standards. It is about advancing Marwan Barghouti’s political ambitions to replace Abu Mazen,” Erdan said in a statement, referring to Abbas by his nickname.
“Barghouti is a murderer and hypocrite who urged his fellow prisoners to strike and suffer while he ate behind their back,” he said. He also released a video with his statement.
A onetime advocate for peace, Barghouti turned militant, leading Palestinians through two “intifadas,” or uprisings, against Israel. He has spent the past 15 years in jail, convicted by an Israeli court of five counts of murder and membership in a terrorist organization.
Immediately after Israel released the video, Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, held a news conference in the Palestinian city of Ramallah. She declared that the Prisons Service’s clip was “fabricated.”
The Palestinian National Committee for the Support of the Prisoners’ Strike also said that the clip was fake, that it was footage from 2004. They called on the Palestinian media not to publicize it.
"We expected that some Palestinians would try to spread disinformation regarding the footage. The footage is authentic, the dates are accurate, they are from the current hunger strike," Erdan told The Washington Post.
Israeli media widely reported the covert snacking. Some outlets suggested that the Prison Service left the candy bars in his cell to bait Barghouti and break the strike.
On social media, pro-Israel advocates mocked the Palestinian leader with memes showing Rowan Atkinson’s comic character Mr. Bean scoffing legs of chicken and another with a huge doughnut coming forth from Barghouti’s mouth under the slogan: I couldn’t resist.
About 6,500 Palestinian prisoners are jailed in Israel, and more than 800,000 Palestinians have been incarcerated at one time or another over the past 50 years, according to the Palestinian Prisoners Club, a 24-year-old support group for Palestinian detainees.
For Palestinians, the prisoners issue is particularly sensitive. Those who are incarcerated by Israel are seen as political fighters tried by a foreign entity and held in foreign jails.
Israelis, meanwhile, consider them terrorists with Israeli blood on their hands.
Although Palestinian hunger strikes are not new, what sets this one apart is Barghouti's involvement. Despite spending 15 years behind bars, he is still very popular among Palestinians who view him as their own version of Mandela. He has acquired an almost mythical status over the years, and graffiti of his face adorns the separation wall between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
In an interview with left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz, Barghouti’s son Arab said his father’s trial was political and “not based on any evidence or facts.”
“My father was fair and clear: He denied everything. He was sentenced to five life terms. Mandela was also sentenced to life imprisonment,” he said. “My father is a man of peace. He always sought peace. The only thing he will not forgo is his people’s rights.”
Initially, as many as 1,100 prisoners joined Barghouti in refusing food, but over the past three weeks, about 600 prisoners have since dropped out. Today 894 prisoners, still a high number, are participating in the strike, the Israel Prison Service said.
The hunger strike puts Israel in a precarious position. The biggest fear is that one of the prisoners might die, sparking an eruption of Palestinian violence in the West Bank and Gaza. Erdan has vowed that he would not hold back from force-feeding the hunger strikers to avoid that.