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Palestinian Prisoners Marwan Barghouti and Zakaria Zubeidi Could Take Down The Palestinian Authority

The rule of the Palestinian Authority, headed by its President Mahmoud Abbas, has for months been on weak legs and there are two political prisoners that could potentially now deliver a knock out blow.

Since the 11-day war between Gaza’s armed groups and the Israeli military in May of this year, resulting in the murder of 270 Palestinians, in addition to the deaths of 13 Israelis, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has been severely weakened. Whilst Gaza’s democratically elected Hamas government resisted Israel’s attacks on worshippers at the al-Aqsa mosque, during Ramadan, the West Bank’s PA attempted to use its security forces to suppress an uprising against the occupation.

The later killing of popular PA critic Nizar Banat, on June 24, added another layer of contempt, voiced by Palestinians towards the Israeli-backed dictator Mahmoud Abbas. The same Abbas that promised to hold the first Palestinian Presidential and Legislative elections in 15 years, but then cancelled them for what many see as a way for him to have escaped defeat.

Compared to Gaza, the West Bank has been relatively silent since 2007, in terms of armed resistance against the Israeli occupation. Yes, there still have been sporadic attacks on soldiers and illegal settlers, but this has always been from civilians who, out of frustration, have taken matters into their own hands. Although there are constant protests and, when Israel commits its more egregious crimes, small rebellions, it’s never been anything for the Israeli military to particularly worry about.

In large-part, the inaction against the occupation inside the West Bank came due to the “security coordination” it participates in with the Palestinian Authority. The PA does most of the dirty work for them, it does the majority of the spying, lots of torture, has better intelligence on Palestinians and its control — although limited to smaller pockets — is situated in the most densely populated City areas.

Due to the PA, which the UK and the EU largely foot the bills for, combined with 4 billion plus in American aid to Israel, the Israeli government is able to operate the first ever cost free occupation in history. However, as with the case during Israel’s occupation of Southern Lebanon, their reliance on the ‘South Lebanon’ army backfired quickly and their soldiers eventually could not tolerate the violence brought to them by local militias, including members of Hezbollah.

The Prisoners Who Could Potentially Lead West Bank Liberation

The first prisoner who has tremendous potential to stir up tensions in the West Bank is a well known figure (inside Palestine) by the name of Zakaria Zubeidi. Zubeidi is a member of Mahmoud Abbas’ ruling Fatah Party, but represents a much more radical wing and is currently imprisoned for leading armed attacks against Israelis. He was a top commander in the Tanzim militia, created by former PA President Yasser Arafat, and led the “battle of Jenin” in 2002, against Israel.

Zakaria Zubeidi was one of the 6 prisoners who escaped from Israel’s Gilboa “maximum security” prison in early September. He was later re-captured by Israeli forces, going days without water or proper food, and was, according to Palestinian prisoner associations, subject to heavy torture and even hospitalized. The prison break had triggered a wave of armed attacks on Israeli occupation forces, in tribute to the prison break. At that time the PA pledged to work with Israel in order to help them capture the escaped detainees, which saw much criticism voiced against their forces.

Zubeidi is now on a hunger strike over mistreatment whilst held in custody. If he holds this hunger strike it has the potential to ignite further escalations inside of the West Bank. So far he has been on a hunger strike since Wednesday last week. In the worst case scenario he could die due to the strike. If this was to happen, there can be no doubt that there will be armed attacks on Israeli forces in the West Bank, specifically coming from the militias of Jenin refugee camp. He could very well be granted better conditions as a result of the hunger strike, especially if the Israeli government sees that a deterioration in his physical wellbeing leads to chaos. Either way, due to his stature in Palestinian society, the man commands great respect and has the power to lead a rebellion from inside his prison cell.

The reason such an escalation is dangerous to the Fatah leadership currently running the PA, is due to Zubeidi’s ability to cause such an escalation not just Gaza, but in the West Bank as well. If the West Bank explodes, Gaza will follow. That sort of unified armed rebellion could easily turn against the PA, or at the very least present many problems for them and their Israeli rulers.

The second and most notable political prisoner is Marwan Barghouti. Barghouti is also a prominent Fatah Party figure, given 5 life-sentences, currently remaining shackled inside an Israeli military prison and is seen as a leader in both the first and second Palestinian Intifada’s (Uprisings). When PA President Mahmoud Abbas announced the Palestinian elections — later cancelling them — earlier this year, Marwan Barghouti created his own independent Fatah Party list for the legislative elections, which was tipped to possibly beat that of Abbas. According to the most recent polls, 80% or more of Palestinians want to see Mahmoud Abbas resign and his popularity is not showing any signs of changing soon. If Marwan Barghouti was to run against Abbas, it is understood that Barghouti would become the newly elected president.

It is unknown as to what exactly Barghouti would do as President, but his radical past in the armed struggle against Israel is certainly a frightening prospect to the occupier. In addition to this, his relationship with Hamas in Gaza would likely become much closer. A change in the West Bank leadership could easily see an abandonment of PA collaboration with Israel. Although, this is of course all speculative.

The reason why Marwan has such potential for unifying with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, is that Hamas is currently attempting a prisoner swap with Israel and announced this past Saturday that Marwan Barghouti must be included in any exchange. Israel is currently under massive pressure to retrieve four of its soldiers — dead or alive it is unknown — who were captured by Gazan fighters in 2014. If Israel is forced to seal a prisoner swap deal and Barghouti is released, Hamas will have essentially put the President Mahmoud Abbas in checkmate.

Marwan Barghouti simply needs to campaign and the people of the West Bank will back him — if he chooses to fight the PA. Also in the prisoner exchange list, as a must for Hamas, is Zakaria Zubeidi. So as a team they come as a tremendous challenge to the status quo for Abbas in Ramallah.

If the Dictatorship of Mahmoud Abbas is overthrown, it then only becomes a matter of time until the Israeli occupation is forced into a corner and settlers begin leaving many areas, due to safety concerns.

Robert Inlakesh
Robert Inlakesh is a documentary filmmaker, journalist, writer, Middle-East analyst & news correspondent for The Last American Vagabond.
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