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Palestinian Hunger Strikers: Fighting Ingrained Duplicity

[Palestinians hold photographs of their relatives jailed in Israel during a support rally for Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 5, 2012. Image by Majdi Mohammed/AP Photo.] [Palestinians hold photographs of their relatives jailed in Israel during a support rally for Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 5, 2012. Image by Majdi Mohammed/AP Photo.]

On his seventy-third day of hunger strike, Thaer Halahleh was vomiting blood and bleeding from his lips and gums, while his body weighs in at 121 pounds—a fraction of its pre-hunger strike size. The thirty-three-year-old Palestinian follows the still-palpable footsteps of Adnan Khader and Hana Shalabi, whose hunger strikes resulted in release. He also stands alongside Bilal Diab, who is also entering his seventy-third day of visceral protest. Together, they inspired nearly 2,500 Palestinian political prisoners to go on hunger strike in protest of Israel's policy of indefinite detention without charge or trial.

Administrative detention has constituted a core of Israel's 1,500 occupation laws that apply to Palestinians only, and which are not subject to any type of civilian or public review. Derived from British Mandate laws, administrative detention permits Israeli Forces to arrest Palestinians for up to six months without charge or trial, and without any show of incriminating evidence. Such detention orders can be renewed indefinitely, each time for another six-month term.

Ayed Dudeen is one of the longest-serving administrative detainees in Israeli captivity. First arrested in October 2007, Israeli officials renewed his detention thirty times without charge or trial. After languishing in a prison cell for nearly four years without due process, prison authorities released him in August 2011, only to re-arrest him two weeks later. His wife Amal no longer tells their six children that their father is coming home, because, in her words, “I do not want to give them false hope anymore, I just hope that this nightmare will go away.”

Twenty percent of the Palestinian population of the Occupied Palestinian Territories have at one point been held under administrative detention by Israeli forces. Israel argues these policies are necessary to ensure the security of its Jewish citizens, including those unlawfully resident in settlements surrounding Jerusalem, Area C, and the Jordan Valley—in flagrant contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention's Article 49(6), which explicitly prohibits the transfer of one's civilian population to the territory it occupies.

The mass hunger strike threatens to demolish the formidable narratives of national security long propagated by Israeli authorities. In its most recent session, the United Nation’s Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination concluded that Israel's policy of administrative detention is not justifiable as a security imperative, but instead represents the existence of two laws for two peoples in a single land. The Committee went on to state that such policies amount to arbitrary detention and contravene Article 3 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which prohibits "racial segregation and apartheid." Nevertheless, this apartheid policy has so far escaped the global condemnation it deserves. In general, Palestinian grievances are consistently evaded with the help of media bias that accords faint coverage to signs of resistance, including even this extraordinary non-violent movement mounted by Palestinian victims of institutionalized state abuse. 

Although there has not been a principled or total abandonment of armed struggle by Palestinians living under occupation, there has been a notable and dramatic shift in emphasis to the tactics of nonviolence. For years liberal commentators in the West have been urging the Palestinians to make such a shift, partly for pragmatic reasons. Even President Obama echoed this suggestion in his 2009 Cairo address when he said,

Palestinians must abandon violence….For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding.

But when Palestinians act in this recommended manner, the West averts its gaze and Israel responds with cynical disregard, dismissing near-death Palestinian hunger strikers as publicity stunts or cheap tricks to free themselves from imprisonment. Today, Palestinians have epitomized the best of American values that reflect the global history of non-violent resistance, as they wage a mass hunger strike, engage in a global boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israeli Apartheid, and risk their bodies on a weekly basis in peaceful protests against the Annexation Wall. The latter continues to expand its devastating encroachment upon and around Palestinian lands in defiance of a near unanimous Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice as well as countless Security Council Resolutions.

Yet, this America chooses to label the hunger strikers' prison guards, the architects of racist laws and policies, as well as the engineers of the Apartheid Wall, as the sole and exemplary democracy in the Middle East. Rather than condemn Israel's colonial practices, which constitute the core of Arab grievances and explain the widespread resentment of the US role in the Middle East, a US Congressional House panel has just now approved nearly one billion US dollars in additional military assistance to augment Israel's anti-missile defense program. If passed, Israel will receive a record amount of four billion dollars in military aid next year—more than any country in the world.

There is a stark contrast between the round-the-clock coverage given to Chen Guangchen, the blind Chinese human rights activist who escaped from house arrest to the safety of the US Embassy, and the scant notice given this unprecedented Palestinian challenge to the Israeli prison system that is subjecting the protesters to severe health risks, even death. What is more, such hunger strikes are part of a broader Palestinian reliance on a powerful symbolic appeal to the conscience of humanity in their quest for long-denied rights under international law. Said deprivations include a disavowal of a peace process that has gone nowhere for decades, while a pattern of settlement expansion has made any realization of the widely endorsed "two-state solution" increasingly implausible. The prolonged nature of the occupation also steadily transforms what was supposed to be a temporary occupation into a permanent arrangement best understood as a mixture of annexation and apartheid.

In the face of this opportunity to place pressure upon Israel to comply with international law and human rights norms, the international community of governments and inter-governmental institutions has been grotesquely silent as Palestinians place their very lives at sacrificial risk. For its part, the United Nations' most senior officials said nothing until a group of forty young protesters blocked the entrance of UN offices in Ramallah on 8 May, demanding the issuance of a statement on behalf of the hunger striking prisoners. Together with the help of a global social media campaign to trend #UNclosed, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and UNRWA's director Filippo Grandi have finally issued statements expressing deep concern. Grandi has gone the farthest to urge that Israel either provide trials for the detainees or release them, though his statement has been conspicuously removed from the Agency’s website.

It is hard to deny the irony of tacit approval, at worst, or timid condemnation, at best, in the United Nations, the United States, or elsewhere. In its 2008 Boumedienne decision, the US Supreme Court declared that (arguably) the world's most villainous and immoral persons are entitled to habeas corpus review in US courts in order to avoid the cruelty of indefinite detention. Yet, Israel's policy of detaining indigenous Palestinians who inhabit the lands the State seeks to confiscate and settle for more than four decades has denied those Palestinians exactly such legal protection. What are Palestinians to do in the face of such frustrating circumstances? What message does the lack of international support for their strong displays of nonviolence, self-sacrifice, and personal bravery send to them and to their Arab and Muslim counterparts who are once more exposed to blatant US hypocrisy in the region?

Palestinian civil society is now mainly opting for explicit acts of collective nonviolent resistance to register their dissatisfactions with the failures of the United Nations—or inter-governmental diplomacy in general—to produce a sustainable peace that reflects Palestinian rights under international law. The main expression of this embrace of nonviolence is the adoption of tactics used so successfully by the anti-Apartheid campaign to change the political climate in racist South Africa, yielding a nonviolent path to multiracial constitutional democracy. At the present time the growing BDS movement is working to achieve similar results.

Let us recall that successful global nonviolent movements are not restricted to fasts and marches, but include the boycott, non-cooperation, and civil disobedience tactics deployed by Palestinians today. Though President Obama, encumbered as he may be by a domestic election cycle, may feel compelled to ignore Palestinian responses to his call, the rest of the world should not.  Certainly, US-based and global citizens should demand that the Western media begin to act responsibly when dealing with injustices inflicted on the Palestinian people, and not sheepishly report human rights abuses only when committed by the adversaries of their state. The media itself is a tactical target and a residual problem. In solidarity with the hunger strikers, civic allies should address the institutional edifice upholding administrative detention. It extends from a discriminatory core and therefore its requisite treatment includes ensuring the enjoyment of internationally guaranteed rights; rights enshrined by the BDS call to action and reified by the movement’s steady and deliberate progression.  

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Update: On 15 May, 2012, around 2,000 Palestinian political prisoners ended a mass hunger strike following the establishment of an agreement that responded to a number of key demands. While one prisoner remains on strike, a nine-member committee representing the strikers met with a committee of Israeli Prison Service and Israeli intelligence officials and agreed that in exchange an end to the hunger strike, the Israeli Prison Service would lift severe measures taken against Palestinian political prisoners following the capture of Gilad Shalit in June of 2006. These measures include: the policy of isolating prisoners on a long-term basis for “security” reasons; the nineteen prisoners currently in isolation will be moved out within seventy-two hours.  Family visits for prisoners from the Gaza Strip and West Bank, previously denied on grounds of “security”, will be reinstated in one month.  Administrative detention, and the renewal of such detentions for any of the 308 prisoners currently under it, will end, unless the files that provide the grounds for administrative detention contain “very serious” information.  Finally, the Israeli committee plans to establish a committee to open up avenues of communication between the Israeli Prison Service and prisoners, in the name of improving daily conditions for political prisoners. 

In addition to ending their hunger strike, the political prisoners are required to sign commitments promising not to undermine prison security.  Israel has threatened to “cancel its commitment regarding solitary confinement and family visits” should prisoners renege on these commitments or begin another mass hunger strike. Read more about the agreement here.

3 comments for "Palestinian Hunger Strikers: Fighting Ingrained Duplicity"

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My U. S. government, in this situation, is misguided and wrong wrong wrong....

Marilyn Krysl wrote on May 11, 2012 at 07:24 PM
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"Though President Obama, encumbered as he may be by a domestic election cycle, may feel compelled to ignore Palestinian responses to his call, the rest of the world should not"

This is too generous to Obama, the genuflector at AIPAC. But you are correct that it is the rest of the world who will make the difference!

Linda J wrote on May 11, 2012 at 11:22 PM
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Sadly the Palestinians are screwed. If they act violently, they are called terrorists, if they act non-violently, we ignore them. Either way, Israel wins and the Palestinians lose. It makes me so ashamed of my government and its brutal hypocrisy.

karen johnson wrote on May 13, 2012 at 09:53 AM

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