As Palestinian Prisoners’ Hunger Strike Enters Second Month, Could Israel Force a Third Intifada?

On Sunday, May 21, 2017, a hunger strike by about 850 Palestinian prisoners entered its 35th day. On that day, the Israeli Prison Service evacuated 60 of the strikers to hospitals due to their deteriorating medical conditions. Nearly 600 others were moved into infirmaries, while a general strike was planned throughout the West Bank.

As demonstrations begin, one of the most dramatic campaigns of Palestinian resistance in recent years enters its next phase. Yet even during President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Israel-Palestine, American broadcast media generally avoided any discussion of the hunger strike, a revealing omission that exposed its Israelicentric tendencies.

The strike was inaugurated by Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned leader of the Tanzim political faction and one of the most influential figures in the Palestinian polity. Barghouti’s article in the New York Times explained the motives behind the mass action:

“Palestinian prisoners and detainees have suffered from torture, inhumane and degrading treatment, and medical negligence. Some have been killed while in detention. According to the latest count from the Palestinian Prisoners Club, about 200 Palestinian prisoners have died since 1967 because of such actions. Palestinian prisoners and their families also remain a primary target of Israel’s policy of imposing collective punishments. Over the past five decades, according to the human rights group Addameer, more than 800,000 Palestinians have been imprisoned or detained by Israel — equivalent to about 40 percent of the Palestinian territory’s male population.”

Arab Marwan Barghouti, the son of the hunger strike leader, Marwan Barghouti, explained to AlterNet that while the strike is new, the situation is not: “The conditions that have drove these demands are not new to the prisoners, they have just now lost hope about getting help from anyone else, so they have decided to take matters into their own hands by carrying on this hunger strike. The main demands of this strike are simply that Israel abide by international law.”  

It is crucial to understand who, exactly, is languishing in Israel’s jails. The majority have been convicted of terrorism, but that term is very loosely and broadly applied. The category includes those who have been found guilty of throwing stones and those who are engaged in non-violent forms of protest--they may have posted statements on social media or given speeches that the courts feel might have “incited” illegal demonstrations.  

Arab Barghouti notes that strikers’ demands address the manners in which Palestinians are incarcerated, insisting on the end of the current practice of administrative detention, which holds occupied Palestinians in captivity without trial for as long as six months. He argues that the Palestinians in Israeli jails are in fact political prisoners. “If these prisoners are really guilty of a crime,” Barghouti asked, “then why is Israel so scared to give them a fair trial?”

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan hasn’t tried to resolve the strike through negotiations with the prisoners over their demands. Instead he has tried to break the strikers’ will and end the action by force. He also has been threatening to force-feed the strikers, as the American military has done to its captives at the Guantanamo Bay prison facility.

Abdel-Nasser Farwaneh, head of studies and documentation on a PLO prisoners committee, claims that Israeli doctors in these clinics “make ending the hunger strike a condition to offer medical aid for hunger strikers.” He added that such acts amount to a “flagrant violation” of all international conventions and humanitarian laws. He called for Israeli doctors, who are taking part in these violations, to be prosecuted in court for violating the ethics of the medical profession.

Besides the physical abuse of prisoners, there is the emotional and psychological damage of deprivation and seclusion. Arab explained that perhaps the most crucial demand of the prisoners was to see their family members twice a month. “When you are in prison, there is not much to live for other than your family,” he said. “If you are not allowed to see your family for years at a time, then what is the point of living? Israel falsely states that currently the prisoners are allowed a visit once a month but most of the time the visits are not allowed and families are not granted permits. For example, I have not been able to see my father for two years.”

So far, Israel’s government has refused to negotiate, preferring escalation in the streets to any humanitarian concessions. Haaretz noted: “Rather than demanding release from jail, they are, for example, asking for phones to be installed in prisoner wings so they can speak with their families while supervised. They also want a relaxation of family visitation policy, permission to register for academic study and matriculation exams, a solution to cell overcrowding, the installation of air conditioners, and routine annual medical exams for all prisoners. Is it in Israel’s interest to descend into a third intifada instead of listening to the prisoners?”

This is precisely the issue—why would Israel risk inciting violence by brutally suppressing non-violent protest from a captive population? The answer might be that meeting the prisoners’ demands would mean addressing the occupation as a whole. As Arab Barghouti explained, “the prisoners’ demands are actually demands all the people in Palestine can relate to. Like the prisoners, Palestinians want the freedom to see their families in neighboring cities in the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem, and other restricted areas.”

Israel is more interested in asserting and maintaining its power over Palestinians in general than in offering a measured, politically strategic response to the strike. Nayan Shah, a professor at the University of Southern California, notes in a forthcoming book, “Refusal to Eat in Indefinite Detention” that, “Medical professionals often appraise hunger strikers’ condition within a broader biopolitical framework that administers and regulates life processes aggregated on the level of populations.”

The Palestinians’ treatment in the hands of the Israeli prison system serves as perhaps the most extreme example of the total control of occupation. Hunger strikes, like boycotts, are an attempt to gain back both some control over one’s life and death, and also to achieve a measure of dignity, and Palestinians are using both these essential forms of nonviolent protest to draw attention to their situation.

Hunger strikes in the modern age are hardly new. Shah points out that British suffrage activists warned prison officials that they would refuse to eat unless treated as political prisoners. In 1909, Ellen Burkitt dramatically declared that: “If I should die through my fasting, my death will lie at your door, but I am ready to lay down my life, to bring about the freedom of my sisters.”

In all cases of hunger strikes, the issue of whether or not the state uses force-feeding is essential. It presents an enormous ethical dilemma—who has the right and responsibility over another’s body? Is it acceptable to allow people to die for something they believe in? In 1981, during the Maze Prison crisis in Belfast Ireland, the British government ordered prison administrators and medical officers to monitor the deteriorating conditions, but did not forcibly feed the prisoners. After 66 days, Bobby Sands starved himself to death and nine hunger strikers died after him. South African hunger strikers in 1989 used exactly the same dietary regime as 10 Irish Republican Army members who died in Northern Ireland in 1981 in a protest over demands for political-prisoner status. They are refusing all solid food and drinking only water.

The strikes have also exposed the bias of American media, throwing a spotlight on its silence in the face of one of the most remarkable Palestinian protests in recent years. “That same media incessantly wants to discuss Palestinians when they launch a rocket or initiate a knife attack,” said Noura Erekat, an assistant professor of international legal studies at George Mason University. “This should tell us two things immediately: first, Palestinians only appear in the media when it concerns Israelis, they are a derivative character in the U.S. media who do not speak for themselves but are mediated by Israeli experiences. The second is how the media itself constructs a story about Palestinians that is selective, inaccurate, and horribly irresponsible. It means that the media is not just documenting the ongoing denial of Palestinian freedom, they are part of the problem.”  

As the ongoing hunger strikes have demonstrated, non-violent resistance simply is not interesting to most mainstream American newspapers. Depressingly, it may well take the deaths of some prisoners before the media offers the protests any attention at all.  


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