Historic hunger strikes: Lightning in the skies of Palestine
Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held without trial initiated a mass hunger strike in April in protest against Israel's policy of 'administrative detention'. Some of the prisoners came perilously close to death after refusing food for over a month, but the hunger strike received very little coverage in the mainstream Western media. Although the strike was called off after Israel relented somewhat, Richard Falk, writing while it was still in progress, attempts to capture what he calls 'a Gandhian moment in the Palestinian struggle'.
THERE is ongoing militant expression of Palestinian resistance to the abuses of Israel's 45 years of occupation and de facto annexation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and five-year blockade of Gaza, taking the form of a series of hunger strikes. Recourse to this desperate tactic of courageous self-sacrifice is an extreme form of non-violence and should, whenever and wherever it occurs, be given close attention. Palestinians have protested by hunger strikes in the past but failed to inspire the imagination of the wider Palestinian community or shake the confidence of Israeli officialdom. Despite the averted gaze of the West, especially in North America, there are some signs that this time the hunger strikes have crossed a historic threshold of no return.
Adnan's and Shalabi's struggles
These strikes started with the individual exploit of a single person, Khader Adnan, at the end of 2011. Dragged from his home in the village of Arraba near Jenin during a night raid by dozens of Israeli soldiers, humiliated and roughed up in the presence of his two- and four-year-old daughters, carried away shackled and blindfolded, roughly interrogated, and then made subject to an administrative decree for the eighth time in his young life, Adnan's inner conscience must have screamed 'Enough!' and he embarked on an open-ended hunger strike. He continued it for 66 days, and agreed to take food again only after the Israeli authorities relented somewhat, including a pledge not to subject Adnan to a further period of administrative detention unless further incriminating evidence came to the surface. Upon release, Adnan, to depersonalise his ordeal, insisted on visiting the families of other Palestinians currently under administrative detention before returning to his own home.
(Administrative detention allows Israeli forces to detain Palestinians for indefinitely renewable terms of up to six months each without charge or trial, and without any show of incriminating evidence.)
Adnan has spoken out with firm gentleness and invited persons of conscience everywhere to join in the struggle to induce Israel to abandon administrative detention, and the accompanying violations of Palestinian human rights. His open letter to the people of the world is reproduced below (see box) to convey the tone and substance of his struggle.
Following Adnan, and inspired by him, was Hana Shalabi, a young Palestinian woman subject to a similar abusive arrest, accompanied by humiliations associated with her dress and sexual identity. Shalabi was from the village of Burqin also near Jenin, and had been released a few months earlier in October 2011 as part of the prisoner exchange that was negotiated to obtain the release of the sole Israeli captive, Gilad Shalit. She had seldom strayed from her family home prior to the re-arrest on 16 February 2012, and her life was described as follows by her devoted sister, Zahra: 'The four months between October and February were trouble-free days, bursting with dreams and ambitions. Hana loved to socialise and meet with people. She was busy with getting her papers in order to register for university, with her eyes set on enrolling at the American University in Jenin. She wanted to get her driver's licence, and later buy a car. She went on a shopping spree, buying new carpets and curtains for her bedroom.and she dreamed of getting married and of finding the perfect man to spend the rest of her life with.' It is little wonder that when arrested in the middle of the night she reacted in the manner described by Zahra: 'She was panicking, and kept repeating over and over again that she was not going with the soldiers because she didn't do anything.'
As with Adnan, Shalabi was released after she was in critical condition, but in a vindictive manner, being sent to live in Gaza for three years, thereby separated from her family and village, which were her places of refuge, love, and nurturing. She also made it clear that her experience of resistance was not meant for herself alone, but was intended to contribute to the struggle against prison abuse and the practice of administrative detention, but even more generally as engagement in the struggle for Palestinian rights, so long denied.
'The battle of empty stomachs'
The example set by Adnan and Shalabi inspired others subject to similar treatment at the hands of the Israelis. Several Palestinians detained under administrative detention decrees commenced hunger strikes at the end of February, and as many as 1,650 others, and possibly more, initiated a massive hunger strike on Palestinian Prisoner's Day, 17 April, that is continuing, and has been named 'the battle of empty stomachs'. The main battlefield is the mind of the oppressor, whether to give in and seem weak or remain firm and invite escalating censure, as well as Palestinian militancy, should any of those now in grave condition die.
The latest news suggests that Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahleh, continuing their hunger strike that started on 28 February, are clinging to life by a thread. In early May they were both finally transferred to civilian hospitals. Halahleh, after the 70th day without food, announced that he was no longer willing even to drink any water or accept further medication.
As might be expected, the voices of concern from the international community have been muted and belated. The International Committee of the Red Cross has finally expressed in public its concern for the lives of these strikers. The United Nations envoy to the Middle East, Robert Serry, never someone outspoken, acknowledged in a brief and perfunctory statement on 3 May that he was 'deeply troubled' by the danger to these hunger strikers, as if such a sentiment was somehow sufficient in the face of the outrages being inflicted.
More persuasively, several human rights NGOs, including Physicians for Human Rights - Israel, have been reminding Israel of its obligation to allow family visits, which prison authorities have repeatedly denied, despite it being an accepted tenet of medical ethics that is affirmed in Israel's Patient's Rights Law.
On 7 May Israel's High Court of Justice denied urgent petitions for release from administrative detention filed on behalf of Diab and Halahleh. The Court, in a classic example of the twisted way judges choose to serve the state rather than the cause of justice, declared: 'Hunger strikes cannot serve as an element in a decision on the very validity of administrative detention, since that would be confusing the issue.' Would it be so confusing to say that without some demonstration of evidence of criminality, rejecting such a petition amounts to imposing a death sentence without even the pretensions of a show trial that relies on coerced confessions? Israel's highest judicial body leaves no doubt about its priorities by invoking anti-terrorism as a blanket justification, saying that Israel 'should not have to apologise for securing its own safety'.
On a wider canvas, the hunger strikes are clearly having some effect on Israeli prison policy, although it is not clearly discernible as yet. The Israeli Public Security Minister, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, convened a meeting in which he voiced the opinion that Israeli reliance on administrative detention was excessive, and should be reduced. There is also some discussion with officials of the Israeli Prison Service and a committee representing some of the 17 April prisoners on a series of demands relating to prison conditions.
The following demands have been articulated by the 17 April hunger strikers, under the banner of 'The Prisoners Revolution':
1. Ending the Israeli administrative detention and solitary confinement, in which Palestinians were imprisoned for more than 10 consecutive years, in solitary cells that lack basic human necessities of life.
2. Allowing family visits to those from the Gaza Strip due to political decisions and unjust laws, such as the so-called 'law of Shalit'.
3. Improving the livelihood of prisoners inside Israeli jails and allowing basic needs such as proper health treatment, education and TV channels and newspapers.
4. Putting an end to the humiliation policy carried out by the Israeli Prison Service against Palestinian prisoners and their families, through humiliating naked inspection, group punishment, and night raids.
Having followed these hunger strikes for several months, I am convinced that these individuals subject to administrative detention are ordinary persons living a normal life, although chafing under the daily rigours and indignities of prolonged occupation. Israeli commentary tends to divert humanitarian concerns by branding these individuals as 'terrorists', taking note of their alleged affiliation with Islamic Jihad. Adnan, who is obviously preoccupied with his loving family, a baker by profession, working in his village, does not seem a particularly political person beyond the unavoidable political response to a structure of domination that is violent, cruel, and abusive. The language of his open letter is one that exhibits moral intensity, and seeks support for the Palestinian struggle for a sustainable peace with justice. It has none of the violent imagery or murderous declarations found in Al Qaeda's characteristic calls for holy warfare against the infidels.
I was impressed by Hana Shalabi's sister's response when asked about the alleged connection with Islamic Jihad. Zahra responded to the question with a smile, saying, 'She's not really Islamic Jihad. She doesn't belong to any faction. When Israel imprisons you, their security forces ask which political faction you belong to. Hana chose Islamic Jihad on a whim.' Even if it was more than a whim, for a religious person to identify with Islamic Jihad it does not at all imply a commitment to or support for terrorist tactics of resistance. Zahra asks rhetorically, 'Does she have missiles or rockets? Where is the threat to Israel? ... Why can't we visit her? She has done nothing.' And finally, 'I would never place my enemy in my sister's position.I would not wish this on anyone.'
Israel has, by vague allegations of links to terrorist activities, tried its best to dehumanise these hunger strikers, or to dismiss such actions as the foolish or vain bravado of persons ready to renounce their lives by their own free will. But their acts and words if heeded with empathy, their show of spiritual stamina and sense of mission, convey an altogether different message, one that exhibits the finest qualities that human beings can ever hope to achieve. Those of us who watch such heroic dramas unfold should at least do our best to honour these hunger strikers and not avert our eyes, and do our utmost to act in solidarity with their struggles in whatever way we can.
We cannot now know whether these hunger strikes will spark Palestinian resistance in new and creative ways. What we can already say with confidence is that these hunger strikers are writing a new chapter in the storyline of resistance sumud, and their steadfastness is for me a Gandhian moment in the Palestinian struggle.
Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.This article is reproduced from his Citizen Pilgrimage blog (richardfalk.wordpress.com).
*Third World Resurgence No. 260, April 2012, pp 36-38