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Richard Falk: Reflections on the Great Palestinian Prison Hunger Strikes of 2012

The end of the Palestinian hunger strike provides opportunity for reflection on its media coverage, legacy, and history.
Image from Flickr via scottmontreal

By Richard Falk
By arrangement with Richard Falk

Ché Guevara was once asked what was at the root of his revolutionary commitment. His response, which we should all take some moments to reflect upon, was: “It is about love.” Reading the words of Khader Adnan (“Open Letter to the People of the World”) and Thaer Halahleh (“Letter to my Daughter”), and the comments of Hana Shalabi’s mother and sister, and Bilal Diab’s father, led me to recall Guevera’s illuminating comment. Only those with closed minds can read such words of devotion and deny that the animating hunger of these Palestinians is for peace and justice, for love and dignity, and that their heroic strikes would have been impossible without a love of life and a hope for the future freedom of the people of Palestine. 
The nature of extreme self-sacrifice, provided it is autonomous and nonviolent, is inherently spiritual even when its external appearance is political. For Christians, and others moved to tears by the life of Jesus, the Crucifixion exemplifies this encounter between the political and the spiritual.

We can only marvel at the duplicitous double standards of the media. Without the Internet and Al Jazeera, the West, especially the United States, would have rendered invisible these challenges to Israeli abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law. Only the settlement of the strike, and to some extent fear of Palestinian unrest in the event of a striker’s death in detention, was deemed somewhat newsworthy by the Western press.
As many have observed, the media treatment of the Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, or the global attention given to the Israeli soldier held captive in Gaza, underscores the media victimization of the Palestinian struggle, and exposes the illegitimacy of an information regime that rests upon a flagrant disregard for objectivity, taking refuge in ill-disguised double standards: magnifying Israeli grievances, disappearing Palestinian wrongs.

Governments that claim to be democracies, respectful of human rights and the rule of law, should waste no time in abolishing administrative detention provisions.

The Israeli media did have a cynical preoccupation with the hunger strikes, wavering between concerns about caving to pressure and the characteristic concern of an oppressor that accommodating grievances would be treated as a show of weakness, encouraging further Palestinian resistance activity. For this reason, the agreement reached to end the main strike has been sharply criticized by right-wing Israeli politicians.
Israel is not alone in addressing prison hunger strikes with detachment, refusing to acknowledge the moral motivation, physical courage and discipline, and the righteousness of the demands for reforms. A 2011 protest hunger strike in California’s notorious Pelican Bay State Prison, and other prisons around the state, led to this monumentally icy reaction from Nancy Kincaid, Director of Communications for California Correctional Health Service: “They have the right to die of starvation if they wish.”  And as the late Kurt Vonnegut so memorably reflected on the terror bombing of Dresden during World War II: “And so it goes.”

The ending of the hunger strikes on the eve of the sixty-fourth observance of Nakba Day is above all a protest against the particular reality of these protests against administrative detention, arrest procedures of a police state, and unacceptable prison regulations that include extensive and extended consignment to solitary confinement, taunting of prisoner suffering, denial of family visits (especially for Gaza families), and a variety of forms of inhumane treatment. It also needs to be understood as part of the general Palestinian struggle for protection and rights, above all, the inalienable right of self-determination, which is accorded to all people by virtue of Article One of both Human Rights Covenants.
Any agreement reached with Israel should be carefully monitored and scrutinized. It was a disgrace that Israel should have released Hana Shalabi and punitively “deported” her to Gaza, where she is required to remain for three years before returning to her family and home in the West Bank village of Burqin. Sentencing Shalabi, without charges, to what many have called the world’s largest open-air prison is to compound the wrong done by detaining her in the first place, and is an implied admission by Israel that it is a punishment to be required to live in blockaded Gaza.
Throughout this period of hunger strikes, begun by Khader Adnan on the day following his December 17th arrest, I and others have taken notice of the IRA strike in the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland, in which ten Irish prisoners fasted unto death, including the martyred Irish hero, Bobby Sands. What I have learned while following the developments in the Palestinian strikes was the earlier celebrated hunger strike of Terrence MacSwiney, the elected lord mayor of county Cork, who was arrested, charged, and convicted of his activism in the Irish struggle against British colonial rule.

MacSwiney, upon conviction, told a stunned court, “I shall be free, alive, or dead, within a month.” He died on October 25, 1920, in the Brixton Prison, after an extraordinary seventy-four day hunger strike, and has been part of the proud tradition of Irish revolutionary iconography ever since. (For a detailed account, see Dave Hannigan’s Terrence MacSwiney: The Hunger Strike that Rocked an Empire) Unlike the blanket of denial and silence that has accompanied the Palestinian acts of protest, the MacSwiney story was a worldwide sensation. 
Aside from the contrast in media coverage, there is the notable fact that MacSwiney faced charges in an open court, and was allowed to speak in his own defense. Governments that claim to be democracies, respectful of human rights and the rule of law, should waste no time in abolishing administrative detention provisions. And if that is not done, the pretension of constitutional democracy should be abandoned. It is time that we demanded that “power speak truth to the people!”

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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