From deep within an Israeli prison, Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti has once again thrust himself to the forefront of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By organising a mass hunger strike by hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, Barghouti has solidified his standing as a likely successor to President Mahmoud Abbas. He also has proven to Israel that, despite serving multiple life sentences, he cannot be ignored as the country marks 50 years of control over the Palestinian territories. Barghouti is the most prominent of the thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, and even after 15 years behind bars, he continues to cast a long shadow over the region. While viewed by Israel as an arch terrorist, he is seen by Palestinians as a national hero, often drawing comparisons to the late South African President Nelson Mandela. He has called the new hunger strike the "long walk to freedom," the title of Mandela's autobiography about life in prison during the apartheid era. "Marwan is the best candidate to inspire and lead the new generation from behind bars, just as Mandela did," said Qadura Fares, a Barghouti supporter and leader of the Palestinian prisoners' association. Palestinian officials say Israel is holding some 6,500 "security prisoners" - people jailed for charges ranging from stone-throwing and membership in groups outlawed by Israel, to attacks that wounded or killed Israelis. Several hundred are being detained without charges. Barghouti was arrested in 2002 during the violent Palestinian uprising and convicted on multiple counts of murder. Israel charged him with directing suicide bombings against its citizens, and he was sentenced to five life terms. Barghouti did not offer a defense, refusing to recognize the court's authority. As many as 1,500 prisoners are believed to have joined the strike.
Their immediate demands included better conditions, more contact with relatives, and an end to Israel's practice of detentions without trial. But the strike's significance runs far deeper, with long-ranging implications in the brewing struggle to succeed the 82-year-old Abbas and efforts to end a bitter 10-year rift between Abbas' Fatah movement and the rival Hamas militant group. In an op-ed published in The New York Times, Barghouti wrote that Israeli prisons have become the "cradle of a lasting movement for Palestinian self-determination." Over the years, polls have indicated that Barghouti is the most popular choice among Palestinians to succeed Abbas, who has refused to groom a political heir. He also is seen as the only figure in Abbas' Fatah movement who also enjoys support from Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip from Abbas' forces a decade ago. The ongoing rift is a major impediment to Abbas' goal of establishing a Palestinian state in both territories. Barghouti appears intent on becoming the next Palestinian president, and some believe that Israel will be forced to release him because he is such a unifying figure to the Palestinians. Over the years, Israel has released a number of top security inmates in prisoner swaps and other agreements with the Palestinians.
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