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Richard Falk: Beyond the Politics of Invisibility

Should the story of the Palestinian hunger strikers be getting more attention, and, if so, who should give it to them? Image from Flickr via Libertinus

By Richard Falk
By arrangement with Richard Falk

With a certain amount of fanfare in Israel and Palestine, although still severely underreported by the world media and relatively ignored by the leading watchdog human rights NGOs, it was observed with contradictory spins that the Palestinian hunger strikes had been brought to an end by agreement between the strikers and Israel. At least, that is what most of us believed who were following this narrative from outside the region. But, as with so much else in the region, our understanding was a half-truth, if that. Whether Israel abides by its assurances remains to be seen, and although these strikes were courageous acts of nonviolent resistance, it is not clear at this point whether they will have any longer-term effects on the Israel’s occupation, arrest, and prison policy, or on the wider Palestinian struggle.

Two things are certain, however. First, a much wider awareness that Israel’s reliance on administrative detention, its abusive arrest procedures, and its prison system deserve wider scrutiny than in the past, and that this dimension of the prolonged occupation of Palestine has been responsible for inflicting great suffering on many Palestinians and their families since 1967. Whether such a structure of imprisonment of an occupied people should be viewed as a hitherto neglected dimension of state terrorism is an open question that should be further investigated. Secondly, that the hunger strike as a mode of resistance is now part of the Palestinian culture of resistance, and an option that engages Palestinian political consciousness in manner that did not exist prior to Khader Adnan’s sixty-six day hunger strike initiated on December 17, 2011.

There were parallel and overlapping strikes: A sequence of long-term strikes, first Adnan, followed by Hana Shalabi, then Thaer Halahleh and Bilal Diab, and maybe others, focusing on humiliating and abusive arrest procedures, as well as administration detention as a practice; and then a second wave of strikes, commencing on April 17, 2012, Palestine Prisoners Day, and ending thirty days later, on the eve of the 2012 Nakba observance. This latter protest involved more than 1600 Palestinian prisoners, who were initially inspired by the Adnan and Shalabi strikes, and focused their challenge on deplorable prison conditions.

Supposedly Israeli prison authorities agreed under the pressure of these latter strikes to reduce reliance on solitary confinement in its prisons and to allow more family visits, especially from Gaza. Gaza prisoners had been denied such visits for years as an unlawful reprisal mandated by the Knesset in angry reaction to the capture of the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. What was this pressure? It was not moral suasion. It seemed to be a calculated decision by Israeli prison authorities that it would be better to make small concessions than risk angry reactions to the death of any hunger strikers. The debate in the Israeli press was entirely pragmatic: was it worse to have bad publicity or to show weakness by giving in? Israel only seemed to give in. It needs to be understood that Israel retains all the prerogatives to rely on administrative detention in the future and continuing to have unmonitored exclusive control over prison life.

… Sarsak was arrested as part of a broader effort to demoralize the Palestinians, especially those long entrapped in Gaza.

In the background it should be appreciated that the whole structure of this Israeli prison system violates the Fourth Geneva Convention, that explicitly forbids the transfer of prisoners from an occupied territory to the territory of the occupier.

These uncertainties about the results of these past strikes should certainly be kept in mind. What is presently of more urgent concern is the failure even to realize that long-term hunger strikes were never ended by at least two prisoners, Mahmoud Sarsak, without food for seventy days, and Akram Rikhawi on strike for fourty days. Both are, as could hardly be otherwise, currently in danger of dying, and yet hardly anybody seems to know. Sarsak, who is twenty-five and a resident of the Rafah Refugee Camp in Gaza, is hardly a nobody. When arrested in July 2009 he was a member of the Palestine National Football Team on his way to a match in the West Bank. He was arrested under the ‘Unlawful Combatants Law,’ which offers a person detained even less protection than is provided by ‘administrative detention.’ It is aimed at Palestinians living in Gaza, a part of Palestine that is treated by Israel (but not the international community) as no longer occupied since Sharon’s ‘disengagement plan’ was implemented in 2005. Iman Sarsak has bemoaned his brother’s fate: “My family never would have imagined that Mahmoud would have been imprisoned by Israel. Why, really why?”

There is reason to believe that rather than some conjured up security concern, Sarsak was arrested as part of a broader effort to demoralize the Palestinians, especially those long entrapped in Gaza. During the savage attacks on Gaza at the end of 2008 (“Operation Cast Lead”) the national stadium used for football and the offices of the Palestine Football Association were targeted and destroyed, and three members of the Palestine team killed. All along, the team has been handicapped by curfews, checkpoints, and harassments, as well as the blockade of Gaza, which has forced the team to forfeit many games. The goalkeeper, Omar Abu Rwayyes, has said, “If you degrade the national team you degrade the idea that there could ever be a nation.” Football, what we Americans call soccer, plays a vital symbolic role in the self-esteem and national consciousness of peoples throughout the Arab world, and elsewhere in the South, to a degree unimaginable for even a sports crazy country like the United States.

There has been some slight notice taken of the plight of the Palestinian team in the football world. A few years ago Michel Piatini, President of FIFA, warned Israel that it was risking its own membership in the world association if it continued to interfere with the Palestinian efforts to field the best possible team for international competition. But as with many international gestures of protest against Israel, there was no follow through, nullifying the original impulse. In fact, a disturbing reversal of approach took place. Not long afterwards, Piatini actually presided over a process that awarded Israel the honor of hosting the 2013 Under-21 European Championships. A British NGO, “Soccer Without Borders,” was not so easily seduced, issuing a declaration urging a boycott of the event in Israel and declaring that its organization “stands in solidarity with Mahmoud Sarsak and all Palestinian political prisoners.”

It is one more challenge to global civil society to do what international law is currently incapable of doing: treat equals equally.

As is usually the case, the Israeli response is self-justifying and cynical. A Shin Bet official insisted that Israel “can’t play by the rules of bridge if everyone else is playing rugby.” This kind of assertion papers over the degree to which Israeli society in recent years has enjoyed peace, prosperity, and security, while Palestinians have been enduring the rigors of a cruel occupation and the severe vulnerabilities of a rightless existence. Palestinians have also been experiencing the split reality of observing a set of protective laws applied Israeli settlers (all of whom are part of an unlawful enterprise) and an unregulated military structure applied arbitrarily to the indigenous residents of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.

With national athletes being such objects of interest, it shows how effective is this “politics of invisibility” that keeps the world from knowing the harm being done to the Palestinian people and how they are resisting, often at great risk and self-sacrifice, as epitomized by these long hunger strikes. One can be certain that if such repressive measures were taken by China or Myanmar there would be a mighty cascade of interest, coupled with high minded denunciations from the global bully pulpits of political leaders and an array of moral authority figures. But when the Palestinians experience abuse or resist by reliance on brave forms of nonviolence, there is a posture of almost total disregard. If a few voices are raised, such as that of Archbishop Tutu, it is either ignored because his witness is treated as partisan or, according to Israel’s more zealous defenders, he is discredited by being alleged to be ‘anti-semite,” a denunciation whose meaning has been conflated so as to apply to any critic of Israel. Even such a globally respected figure as Jimmy Carter could not escape the wrath of Israeli loyalists merely because the word “apartheid’ in the title of a book urging a just peace between the two peoples.

The politics of invisibility is cruel and harmful. It is cruel because it does not acknowledge a pattern of injustice because the victims have been effectively stigmatized. It is harmful because it sends a strong signal that victimization will only be given some sort of visibility if it shocks the conscience by its violence against those who seem innocent. Such visibility has a largely negative and stereotyping impact, allowing the oppressor to escalate state violence without risking any kind of backlash or even notice, and validating the perception of the victim population as undeserving, and even as evil endorsers of an ethos of terrorism. Israeli hasbara has worked hard over many years to stereotype the Palestinians as ‘terrorists,’ and by doing so to withdraw any sympathy from their victimization, which is portrayed as somehow deserved. These hunger strikers, despite all indications to the contrary, are so described, attributing their supposed association with Islamic Jihad as synonymous with an embrace of terrorism. A more objective look at the evidence suggests that Islamic Jihad has itself for several years abandoned tactics of violence against civilian targets, and is part of a broader shift in Palestinian tactics of resistance in the direction of nonviolence. Such shifts are either totally ignored by the politics of invisibility or there is a refusal to acknowledge the shift so as to keep the negative stereotype before the public.

It is one more challenge to global civil society to do what international law is currently incapable of doing: treat equals equally. If the world media renders visible the plight of Chinese human rights activists who are abused by the state, might not at least human rights NGOs note this emergency plight of Palestinian hunger strikers on the edge of death? And if these NGOs are afraid to do so, should not those with eyes able to see such torment, start screaming at the top of our lungs?

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for 40 years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

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One comment for Richard Falk: Beyond the Politics of Invisibility

  1. Comment by Fred Skolnik on May 31, 2012 at 1:05 am

    In the Arab-Israel conflict, Israel has been represented so often by its enemies as the villain of the piece that few people realize that it is the Palestinians who refuse to return to the negotiating table. Most recently, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reaffirmed Israel’s commitment to the two-state solution and again proposed direct negotiations without preconditions. The Palestinians rejected the offer, demanding that Israel first halt all building activities in the settlements and guarantee its return to the pre-1967 borders.

    This may seem reasonable on the part of the Palestinians. However, the truth is that it has been years since Israel has expanded existing settlements or built new ones in the West Bank. West Bank building activity has been within the geographical boundaries of existing settlements. And since the final status of these settlements – whether they are to be dismantled or remain part of Israel – is to be determined in negotiations, it makes very little difference if a given settlement has three instead of two kindergarten buildings, an extra room added on to a house, or sixty instead of fifty families. As for the limited new construction in Jerusalem, involving a few acres of land, it has been understood for years by all practical people on both sides that with regard to borders, settlements and the expansion of Jewish Jerusalem, there will be an exchange of land that allows the big Jewish settlement blocs to remain part of Israel and compensates the Palestinians territorially. All this involves around 5% of West Bank land.

    Sadly, there are just two kinds of Palestinian leaders: those who are afraid to make peace with Israel and those who do not wish to make peace with Israel. In the year 2000, at Camp David, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat more than he could ever have hoped for, but Arafat refused, reportedly saying that if he agreed to such an offer, he would be murdered when he got back home. In 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made an even more generous offer to Abu Mazen (PA President Abbas). This too was rejected.

    The reluctance of “moderate” Palestinian leaders to reach agreement with Israel on anything other than an all-or-nothing basis is a clear reflection of the influence of the extremist groups, including terrorist organizations like Hamas. The Big Dream of the Arab world continues to be the total destruction of the State of Israel. Intolerance has been at the heart of the Islamic world view for nearly 1500 years. The existence of a non-Moslem state in the region is intolerable to their way of thinking. The solution in the Moslem world to problems of any kind has always been a bloodbath.

    Israel knows who and what it is dealing with. 9/11 should have taught the rest of the world what Moslem extremism is capable of. In the absence of peace and in the face of murderous terrorist attacks, Israel has acted to ensure the safety of its population. This includes the bombardment of terrorist facilities in Gaza, including the tunnels through which the terrorists smuggle their rockets and the warehouses in which they hide them. Were Israel as brutal in its countermeasures as people pretend, Gaza City would look today like Dresden and Berlin after the Allied bombings in World War II and instead of hundreds there would be hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. This is of course not the case. The Israeli army is one of the most moral armies that has ever existed. Unlike the Arabs, who set out to murder women and children, Israel goes to extreme lengths to avoid injuring civilians. But when you hide behind your children to shoot at my children, someone’s children are going to get hurt, and it is my responsibility to make sure that it isn’t my children, and it is the Israeli government’s responsibility to make sure it isn’t Israeli children. It is as simple as that.

    Israel has been called an apartheid state by people who apparently don’t know what the word means, or are not aware of the fact that the Arab inhabitants of Judea and Samaria are not citizens or residents of Israel but inhabitants of occupied territory and therefore no different in status from the Germans in Occupied Germany after World War II. The security fence, roadblocks and curfews in the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza are there to prevent terrorist acts. When the terrorism stops and the terrorist organizations are dismantled,
    they will disappear.

    The United Nations General Assembly, where, as Abba Eban once put it, the Arabs could pass a resolution declaring that the world is flat, and many of whose members are criminals themselves, has obsessively singled out Israel as the world’s great transgressor. (Between 1947 and 1989, the UN General Assembly “condemned,” “deplored,” “censured” or “denounced” Israel 321 times, the Arabs 0 times. In 2006/7 it passed 22 anti-Israel resolutions without a word about Sudan’s genocide in Darfur.) The United Nations is therefore not the best place to determine the legality or illegality of Israel’s actions. Nonetheless, though Israel has legitimate claims to sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, it has relinquished them and is prepared to accept a two-state solution with all outstanding issues settled at the negotiating table. In 1948, in the wake of the UN Partition Plan, the Jewish leadership in the Land of Israel accepted far less than it thought it should get, and in truth would have accepted even less, because its first concern was the welfare of the Jewish people and the creation of a state in its ancient homeland, however small, that would ensure its safety. Had the Palestinian leaders shown equal concern for their own people, they would have had a state today every bit as prosperous as Israel, for the Palestinian people are truly as talented as any in the Arab world. But because these leaders were indifferent to the welfare of their people, and continue to be indifferent to this day, clinging to the apocalyptic vision of a great massacre on the shores of the Mediterranean, their people have lived in misery for over 60 years. Today they can have their state. The question is whether they are ready for one.

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