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Richard Falk: The Ordeal of Hana Shalabi

shalabi.jpegPhotograph via flickr by angrywhitekid

Above: Israeli border police deploy against a handful of demonstrators protesting for the release of hunger-striking political prisoner Hana Shalabi at Israel’s Ofer Military Prison in Palestine.

By Richard Falk
By arrangement with Richard Falk.

No sooner had Khader Adnan ended his 66-day, life threatening hunger strike than new urgent concerns are being voiced for Hana Shalabi, another West Bank hunger striker now without food for more than 34 days. With a grim irony there is continuity between these acts of spiritual defiance as both Khader Adnan and Hana Shalabi have been held in the same room at the Ramleh Prison Hospital.

Both strikes are directed against the abusive use of administrative detention by Israeli West Bank occupying military forces, protesting both the colonial practice of internment without charges or trial and the degrading and physically harsh treatment administered during the arrest, interrogation, and detention process.

The case of Hana Shalabi should move even the hardhearted. She seems a sensitive and caring young woman of 29 who is a member of Islamic Jihad, and appears dedicated to her family, hopes for marriage, and such simple pleasures as shopping for clothes and home furnishings. She had previously been held in administrative detention at the HaSharon prison in Israel for a 30 month period between 2009 and 2011, being released in the prisoner exchange of four months ago that freed 1027 Palestinians and the lone Israeli soldier captive, Gilad Shalit. After her release, according to her mother, she spent weeks recovering from the deep sense of estrangement she experienced in prison, and rarely left her home or the company of her family. As she was returning to normalcy she was re-arrested in a highly abusive manner, which allegedly included a strip-search by a male soldier at the interrogation center and other behavior intended to humiliate and intimidate.

On February 16, 2012, the day of this renewal of her administrative detention, Hana Shalabi announced her resolve to start a hunger strike to protest her own treatment and to demand an end of administrative detention now relied upon by Israel to hold at least 309 Palestinian in prison. Her family has been denied visitation rights even in her present critical condition, Hana Shalabi was placed in solitary confinement at the outset of her detention, and her health has deteriorated to the point of severe concern for her health, even her life. According to her lawyer, Raed Mahameed, Hana Shalabi was examined by a doctor from Physicians for Human Rights and the doctor said that “she suffers from low heart beat rate, low blood sugar, loss of weight, weakness in muscles, yellowing of the eyes and high levels of salt in the blood which affected her kidneys causing her pain in her sides specially the left side as well as pain in chest bones. Physicians for Human Rights said that Shalabi cannot sleep because of pain, she also suffers dizziness and blurred and occasional loss of vision. Ms. Shalabi told Mahameed that she took salt last week but refused to take any salt since then and is living on two litres of water a day.”

Impressively, her parents have committed themselves to a sympathy hunger strike for as long as their daughter remains under administrative detention. Her mother, Badia Shalabi, has made a video in which she says that even to see food makes her cry considering the suffering of her daughter. Her father has likewise made a global appeal to save the life of his child.

For Israel’s own moral wellbeing it is time… to renounce reliance on administrative detention and to do more than this, to end forthwith its varied crimes of occupation.

Despite frequent mentoring to Palestinians from liberals in the West to rely on nonviolent tactics of resistance, these extraordinary hunger strikes have met with silence or indifference in both Israel and the West. Israeli authorities cynically declare that undertaking a hunger strike is a voluntary action and a publicity stunt for which they take no responsibility and that the striker is alone responsible if any harm results. There is also not a hint that Palestinian grievances about administrative detention are well founded and will even be considered much less acted upon. Such hardheartedness in the face of such sacrificial bravery is a sure sign that Israel is not ready for a sustainable and just peace with Palestine.

The UN also disappoints those who believe in its ideals. It has not raised its voice even to take notice of Hana Shalabi’s plight or Israeli accountability. I share the view of Khitam Saafin, Chairwoman of The Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees: “The UN must be responsible for the whole violation that are going on against our people. These prisoners are war prisoners, not security prisoners, not criminals. They are freedom fighters for their rights.” The sad yet inspiring spiritual defiance of Hana Shalabi is also well expressed by Yael Maron, a spokesperson for the NGO, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel: “The story of Hana Shalabi, like that of Khader Adnan before, is in my opinion a remarkable example of a struggle that’s completely nonviolent towards one’s surroundings..It is the last protest a prisoner can make, and I find it brave and inspiring.”

To engage in an open ended hunger strike, especially for a person who is not in a leadership role, requires a deep and abiding dedication to right a perceived wrong of the greatest gravity. It is physically exceedingly painful and dangerous to bodily health, as well as being psychologically demanding in the extreme. It presupposes the strongest of wills, and usually arises, as in these instances, from a sense that any lesser form of resistance has proved futile, exhibiting a long record of failure. In the end, this unconditional hunger strike is an appeal to the conscience and humanity of the other, and a desperate call to all of us, to understand better the cartography of abuse that abusive imprisonment and occupation entails, which can only be pervasively humiliating for a religiously oriented young Islamic woman. To risk life and health in this way without harming or even threatening the oppressor is to turn terrorism against the innocent on its head. It is potentially to sacrifice one’s life to make an appeal of last resort, an appeal that transcends normal law and politics, and demands our response.

We can only fervently hope and pray that Hana Shalabi’s heroic path of resistance will end with her release and the complete restoration of her health. For Israel’s own moral wellbeing it is time, really long past time, to renounce reliance on administrative detention and to do more than this, to end forthwith its varied crimes of occupation. At this point the only possible way to do this is to withdraw unconditionally behind the 1967 borders, and to start peace negotiations from such an altered position of acknowledged wrongdoing without asking or expecting any reciprocal gesture from the Palestinian side. In the present atmosphere, it is politically unimaginable that Israeli leaders will heed such a call, but it is morally unimaginable that Israel will survive an impending spiritual collapse if it does not quickly learn to do so.

In the meantime, we who are beyond these zones of occupation, abuse, and imprisonment, must do more than stand and watch as this tragic drama plays itself out. We need to do all we can to strengthen the demands of Khader Adnan, Hana Shalabi, and all are refusing food in solidarity for the immediate release of all Palestinians currently held in administrative detention, for an end to detention without charges, to abusive arrests in the middle of the night, and beyond this, and to an end to an occupation that has lasted for 45 years with no end in sight.


By arrangement with Richard Falk.

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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