4/19/2017 Bargouti a Prison strike and the New York Times

Tuesday, Israel emerged from its week-long 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 terror groups during the second Intifadah. 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 their best to outdo each other'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.”

Even here in Newsweek, an article by Elliot Abrams was published questioning why the New York Times failed to mention the crimes for which Barghouti was convicted. By Tuesday evening, criticism had reached such a level, that the Times added a statement at the end of the Barghouti op-ed that stated: “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 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 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. On one hand, he is popular among Palestinians. He is a long-time 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 Abbas. On the other hand, Barghouti was one of the clear leaders of the second intifiadah; 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 cafe 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 towards 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 to American Super-Max prisons, conditions at Israeli prisons are excellent. The list of demands that Barghouti's group has published centers around 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 provided in the article were a claim that 90% of accused Palestinians are convicted by Israeli courts and an allegation 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 thrilled to — instead of the 340 miles to Attica prison — not to mention those needing to travel to the Super Max 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%.

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.

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