Thousands of Palestinian prisoners are staging hunger strikes in Israeli detention centers.
Image from Flickr via Ariela R.
By Richard Falk
By arrangement with Richard Falk
Is there any doubt that if there were more than thirteen hundred hunger strikers in any country in the world, other than Palestine, the media in the West would be obsessed with the story? It would be featured day after day and reported on from all angles, including the severe medical risks associated with such a lengthy refusal to take food. The two Palestinians who were the first to start this current wave of resistance, Thaer Halaheh and Bilal Diab, are entering their 64th day without food. The prisoner protection association, Addameer, and the NGO Physician for Human Rights-Israel, report them to be in critical condition. Despite this dramatic state of affairs, there is scant attention paid in Europe and literally none in North America.
In contrast, consider the attention that the Western media has devoted to a lone blind Chinese human rights lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, who managed to escape from house arrest in Beijing a few days ago to safe haven at the U.S. Embassy. This is an important international incident, to be sure. But is it so much more significant than the Palestinian story that it explains neglecting thousands of Palestinians who sacrifice their bodies, and quite possibly their lives, to nonviolently protest severe mistreatment in the Israeli prison system? Invisible except to their countrymen, and to some extent the region, these Palestinian prisoners have been languishing in an opaque box since 1967. They are denied protection, exist without rights, and cope as best they can, without international acknowledgement of their plight.
[A]dministrative detention … allows Israel to imprison Palestinians for six months at a time without bringing any criminal charges, with terms renewable as they expire.
There is another comparison to be made. Recall the outpouring of concern and sympathy throughout the West for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was captured on the Gaza border and held captive by Palestinians for five years. A powerful global campaign for his release on humanitarian grounds was organized, and received constant reinforcement through the media. World leaders pleaded for his release, and Israeli commanding officers told IDF fighting forces during the massive attacks on Gaza at the end of 2008, in which more than 1450 Palestinians were killed, that their real mission was to free Shalit, or, barring that, to hold accountable the entire civilian population of Gaza. When Shalit was finally released in a prisoner exchange a few months ago there was a celebration that abruptly ended when, much to the disappointment of the Israeli establishment, Shalit reported good treatment during captivity. Shalit’s father went further, saying that if he was a Palestinian he would have tried to capture Israeli soldiers. Not surprisingly, Shalit has quietly disappeared from public view.
This current wave of hunger strikes started on April 17th, Palestinian Prisoners’ Day, and was directly inspired by the long and heroic hunger strikes of Khader Adnan (sixty-six days) and Hana Shalabi (forty-three days), both of whom were protesting the combination of administrative detention and abusive arrest and interrogation procedures. It should be understood that administrative detention is validated by secret evidence and allows Israel to imprison Palestinians for six months at a time without bringing any criminal charges, with terms renewable as they expire. Hana Shalabi was among those released in the prisoner exchange. Still not having recovered from her prior detention period, she was rearrested in a night arrest raid and sentenced once again to four months of confinement. Or consider the experience of Thaer Halahla, who was subject to administrative detention eight times, for a total of six-and-a-half years.
Both Mr. Adnan and Ms. Shalabi were released by deals negotiated at a time when their deaths appeared imminent. Israel apparently did not want to risk a third intifada in reaction to such martyrdom. At the same time, Israel, as usual, did not want the appearance of a retreat, or to be drawn into questions about its reliance on administrative detention and imprisonment. Israel has refused, through the present, to examine the grievances that gave rise to these hunger strikes.
Hana Shalabi’s release was coupled with a punitive deportation order, which confines her to Gaza for the next three years, away from her family and the familiar surroundings of her home village of Burqin (near Jenin in the West Bank). There are some indications that Ms. Shalabi was not fully informed about the deportation condition of her release, and was manipulated by prison authorities and the lawyer representing her interests. The current hunger strikers have been offered similar conditional releases, but have so far steadfastly refused to resume eating if faced with deportation or exile. At this time it is unclear how Israel will respond. There is a fierce struggle of wills between the strikers and the prison authorities, between those with hard power of domination and those with the soft power of moral and spiritual courage. The torment of these striking prisoners is not only a consequence of their refusal to accept food. Israeli prison guards and authorities are intensifying the torments of hunger. There are numerous reports that the strikers are being subjected to belittling harassment and a variety of punishments, including solitary confinement, confiscation of personal belongings, denial of family visits, denial of examination by humanitarian NGOs, and hardhearted refusals to transfer medically threatened strikers to civilian hospitals, where they could receive the kinds of medical treatment they require.
The Israeli response to the hunger strikes is shocking, but hardly surprising within the wider setting of the occupation. Instead of heeding the moral appeal implicit in such extreme forms of resistance, there are widespread and reliable reports of punitive responses by Israeli prison authorities. Hunger strikers have been placed in solitary confinement, held in shackles despite their weakened conditions, denied family visits, had personal belongings confiscated, and have been subject to harassing comments by guards, intended to demoralize. Israeli media has generally taken a cynical attitude toward the strikes, suggesting that these hunger strikers are mere publicity seekers, aiming for “a get out of jail free” card, and deserve no empathy because they voluntarily gave up food, thus absolving Israeli prison authorities of responsibility for their health. Some news reports in Israel have speculated that the deaths of one or more of the protestors might spark an uprising among the Palestinians, but this is less an expression of concern or a willingness to look at the substantive issues than it is a source of worry about future stability.
Broader issues are also at stake. When Palestinians resorted to violent forms of resistance in the past they were branded by the West as terrorists, their deeds were covered so as to bring out sensationalist aspects. But when Palestinians resort to nonviolent forms of resistance, whether hunger strikes or BDS or an intifada, their actions fall on deaf ears and blind eyes, or worse, there is a concerted propaganda spin to depict the nonviolent resistance as somehow illegitimate: a cheap trick to gain sympathy, or a dirty trick to destroy the state of Israel. All the while, Israel’s annexationist plans move ahead, with settlements expanding, and the recent push to retroactively legalize settler outposts. Such moves signal once and for all that the Netanyahu leadership exhibits not an iota of good faith when it continues telling the world that it is dedicated to negotiating a peace treaty with the Palestinians. It is a pity that the Palestinian Authority has not yet had the diplomatic composure to call it quits when it comes to heeding diversionary calls from the Quartet for a resumption of yet another round of meaningless direct talks. It is long past time to abandon the bridge to nowhere.
[A] hunger strike is … fraught with risks and uncertainties, and is only undertaken as an expression of extreme frustration or acute deprivation.
That rock star of liberal pontificators, Thomas Friedman, has been preaching nonviolence to the Palestinians for years, implying that Israel, as a democratic country with a strong moral sensitivity, would yield in the face of such a principled challenge. Yet when something as remarkable as this massive expression of a Palestinian commitment to nonviolent resistance, dubbed “the war of empty stomachs,” takes place, Friedman, along with his liberal brothers, is stonily silent for weeks, and the news desk at the New York Times unable to find even an inch of space to report on these dramatic protests. Shame on you, Mr. Friedman! (At last, the Times of May 3, 2012, reported on the hunger strikers in a front page story, after the protesters had been fasting for 16 days.)
Robert Malley, another influential liberal voice and a former Middle East advisor to Bill Clinton when he was president, while more constrained than Friedman, suggests that any sustained display of Palestinian nonviolence met with Israeli violence would be an embarrassment for Washington. Malley insists that if the Palestinians were to take to the streets in the spirit of Tahrir Square, and Israelis responded violently, as the Netanyahu government certainly would, it “would put the United States in an … acute dilemma about how to react to Israel’s reaction.” The dilemma depicted by Malley derives from President Obama’s constant encouragement of the democratic aspirations of a people who he has repeatedly said deserve their own state on the one hand, and his unconditional alignment with Israel on the other. Only a confirmed liberal would call this a genuine dilemma, as any informed and objective observer would know that the U.S. Government would readily accept, as it has repeatedly done in the past, an Israeli claim that force was needed to maintain public order. In this manner, Palestinian nonviolence would be disregarded, and the super-alliance of two partners in crime once more reaffirmed.
Let there be no mistake about the moral and spiritual background of the challenge being mounted by these Palestinians. Undertaking an open-ended hunger strike is an inherently brave act, one that is fraught with risks and uncertainties, and is only undertaken as an expression of extreme frustration or acute deprivation. It is not an act taken lightly or as entered into as a stunt. For anyone who has attempted to protest in this manner, as I have for short periods during my decade of opposition to the Vietnam War, it is scary and physically taxing to maintain for as little as a day or two. But to summon the discipline and strength of will to sustain such a strike for weeks at a time requires a rare combination of courage and resolve. Only truly dedicated individuals can adopt and maintain such a tactic. For a hunger strike to be held on such a scale underscores the horrible ordeal of the Palestinians, an ordeal that has been all but erased from the political consciousness of the West in the hot aftermath of the Arab Spring, and may also point to a wider willingness of Palestinians to mount their own version of Tahrir Square.
The world has long refused to take notice of Palestinian one-sided efforts over the years to reach a peaceful settlement with Israel. It is helpful to recall that in 1988 the PLO officially accepted Israel within the 1967 borders, a huge territorial concession, leaving the Palestinians with only 22 percent of historical Palestine on which to establish an independent and sovereign state. In recent years, the main tactics of Palestinian opposition to the occupation, Hamas included, have turned away from violence and towards diplomacy and practices that look toward long-term peaceful coexistence between the two peoples. Israel has not taken note of either development, and has instead continued to throw sand in Palestinian’s eyes. The official Israeli response to Palestinian moves, toward political restraint and away from violence, has been to embark upon a program of feverish settlement expansion, extensive targeted killing, reliance on excessive retaliatory violence, and the intensifying oppression that gave rise to these hunger strikes. One dimension of this oppression is the 50 percent increase in the number of Palestinians held under administrative detention during of the last year, along with (officially mandated) worsening of conditions throughout its prison system.
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.