Unity and Hope: The Story of Palestine’s Hunger Strikers

by Anonymous

5 May 2017

The hallucinations normally start after 4 weeks. Any time after that the body can experience potentially permanent damage to the bones, brain, and other internal organs.

Two weeks ago, over a thousand Palestinian prisoners submitted their bodies to these risks when they began a collective hunger strike on April 17th. Surviving on salt and water, the protest is directed at the “unlawful and cruel” conditions in the Israeli prison system, and the continued presence of the Israeli occupation.

According to prisoners’ rights group Addameer, there are currently 6,300 Palestinian political prisoners confined within Israeli jails. 61 of those incarcerated are women, 300 are children, and 500 are confined under ‘Administrative Detention’, a protocol dating back to the British colonial mandate period, in which individuals can be imprisoned on the basis of secret evidence. Under international law, administrative detention is generally only permitted in times of crisis, but Israel has been in a state of emergency since 1949 and many prisoners have now been locked up for years without trial and without charge.

“I had four uncles in prison after the Second Intifada. They all suffered from terrible food and a lack of family visits. One of them was beaten badly on the face and had his shoulder broken by a guard”, Ali, a student from Tulkarem, told Novara Media. “The protest is against both the conditions in the prison and the entire occupation. All the prisoners are united in this, regardless of political party”.

Easing restrictions on family visits and phone calls are a key component of the prisoners’ demands. For those Palestinians arrested within the Occupied Territories, but incarcerated within Israel – a “flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention”, – family visits are highly difficult to co-ordinate due to their dependence on Israel for granting territorial access to each individual visitor. The prisoners are also fighting for access to items sent to them by family members (including books, magazines, clothing, and food), decent medical treatment, and an end to administrative detention, humiliating searches, solitary confinement and the night raids on prisoners’ cells that often involve beatings.

In a political climate where approximately 40% of men within the Palestinian Territories are at some point imprisoned or detained by Israel, the plight of today’s prisoners is one shared by the Palestinian people as a collective. Accordingly, on 27 April, schools, business, and even taxi drivers throughout the West Bank held a general strike in solidarity with those incarcerated. The strike has also prompted support across social media, particularly through the ‘Salt Water Challenge’ in which participants share videos of themselves drinking glasses of said mixture.

Protest tents have sprung up across the West Bank, and whilst these are normally covered in the banners of one particular political party, today they are adorned in insignia that reflect the broad spectrum of Palestinian political organization. Over the last decade, Palestinian politics has largely been characterized by factional infighting, and yet today’s hunger strikers are drawn from many different political parties (including Fatah, Hamas, and the PLP). This renewed unity has much to do with the protest’s organizer, Marwan Barghouti.

Arrested in 2002 and currently serving five life sentences for murders supposedly organized during the Second Intifada (though the fairness of the 2004 trial and the establishment of any guilt have since been discredited), Marwan Barghouti, 58, is considered by many to be the only Palestinian political figure with both the charisma and integrity needed to unite the nation in the face of rampant Israeli settlement construction. In fact, polls suggest that Fatah party member Barghouti is the most popular choice amongst Palestinians to succeed current President and Fatah party leader, 82-year old Mahmoud Abbas. It is Barghouti leading the strike and it was Barghouti who recently declared to the world that “rights are not bestowed by an oppressor” and that “hunger striking is the most peaceful form of resistance available” in an 16 April Op-Ed in the New York Times.

Whilst most Palestinians are fully supportive of the prisoners’ struggle, some remain skeptical of Barghouti’s self-appointed leadership role. Suspecting a form of politicking to be lying behind the protest, there are those that point to the outcome of Fatah’s February conference, in which the imprisoned Barghouti failed to be appointed to any significant leadership position, as the underlying personal motivation behind the call for a strike. Mousa, a teacher from Til, told Novara Media: ‘Whilst I stand with the prisoners we have to see this for what it is. It is Barghouti saying to Fatah: watch this. I’m still here. I’m still the one who can make a difference-Fatah are now just riding the wave”.

Barghouti’s confrontational approach to the Israeli occupation is certainly at odds with the current President’s focus on negotiation. In fact, Abbas was reportedly ‘outraged’ upon hearing of Barghouti’s call for a ‘Day of Rage’ on 28 April, the day after the General Strike. A public call to confront the Israeli Defence Force and “clash with the occupier at all friction points” is however no small order, and it was the first time that Fatah has openly called for popular resistance to the occupation since 2000. Lacking the political clout to openly defy the call, which resulted in dozens of injured protesters across the West Bank, the timing of the demonstration may also be adding to Abbas’ anxiety, with a long-organized meeting with US President Trump scheduled less than a week later for 3 May.

So what does the future hold for the hunger strikers themselves? First exercised in 1968, Palestinian hunger strikes are not uncommon and those held in recent years have yielded some positive results. In 2012 thousands of prisoners refused food for nearly a month and won some limitations on administrative detention, an end to prolonged isolation, and the resumption of family visits to those prisoners from Gaza. “Modest” concessions were also obtained in 2014 following the longest mass hunger strike to date, again directed against administrative detention. However, in both of these cases there has been some form of communication, and thereby negotiation, with the Israeli Prison Service. For today’s protest, this does not appear to be the case.

Concerning the current strike, the Israeli Prison Service has been directed both by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Security Minister Gilad Erdan to completely ignore the demands of the prisoners. Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman has gone one step further, suggesting the adoption of the “Margaret Thatcher” approach (allowing prisoners to die in their cells), a proposal complemented by Knesset member Oren Hazan’s observation that “there is room in the earth for all of their corpses.” Members of the far-right Jewish Home Party, a faction currently forming part of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, also held a barbecue outside of Ofer Prison on April 18th in the hope that the smell of grilled meat would add to the prisoners’ struggle. Avihai Greenwald, chairman of the party’s youth group, stated that “We wish these terrorists luck in their hunger strike. They should take it all the way.”

Within the prison walls, the prison establishment itself has responded to the strike by confiscating personal belongings and clothes, forcibly transferring prisoners, banning access to televisions, and placing dozens of inmates in solitary confinement. The use of police dogs and the seizing of the Qur’an from prisoners in Nitzan and Ramla prisons has also been reported.

Whilst the Israeli government has been quick to announce any updates on prisoners breaking the strike, the “battle of empty stomachs” shows no sign of ending soon with hundreds of other inmates now reportedly joining the protest in solidarity. Whatever the outcome, dead prisoners will not be well received by the Palestinians, and with the 50th Anniversary of both the 1967 War and the resulting occupation fast approaching, this strike may well be the start of a renewed round of heightened conflict. 

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