Palestinian hunger strike victory
By Brian Durrans
The previous issue of The Socialist Correspondent reported that since the start of the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike in prisons across Israel, which began on 17 April (‘Prisoners’ Day’), the number of strikers had risen to 1,500.
The previous article itself, and the accompanying letter from the hunger strike’s leader, Marwan Barghouti, which had been published in the New York Times the day before the strike began, made clear how the prisoners’ cause dovetails with the wider Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality. [Note 1]
WHAT DOES A HUNGER STRIKE MEAN FOR PALESTINIANS?
Past hunger strikes [Note 2] have proved that the Israeli authorities are vulnerable to this form of pressure, which impacts both inside and outside Israel-Palestine. Such an action is never entered into lightly and always carries a risk to the health, especially the long-term health, of those taking part. It puts additional strain on the families and communities of the hunger strikers, from whom they are already cruelly separated not merely by imprisonment but by Israel’s contravention of international humanitarian law in transferring prisoners from their homes in the illegally Occupied Territories to prisons in Israel itself.
HOW DOES THE WORLD REACT?
This intolerable situation invites widespread outrage and is one of the many ways in which, by its own actions and policies, Israel exposes the cynicism of its public claim to ‘civilized values’. Even organisations not known for their unequivocal support of anti-colonial struggle find Israel’s hypocrisy hard to stomach. For example, in a statement issued ahead of the latest hunger strike, Amnesty International declared:
“Israel’s ruthless policy of holding Palestinian prisoners arrested in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in prisons inside Israel is a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. It is unlawful and cruel and the consequences for the imprisoned person and their loved ones, who are often deprived from seeing them for months, and at times for years on end, can be devastating. Instead of unlawfully transferring prisoners outside the occupied territories, Israel must ensure all Palestinians arrested there are held in prisons and detention centres in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Until then, the Israeli authorities must stop imposing excessive restrictions on visitation rights as a means of punishing prisoners and their families, and ensure that conditions fully meet international standards.” [Note 3]
The New York Times, by publishing Marwan Barghouti’s letter, and Amnesty International, by issuing the above statement, show that this particular action can reach well beyond the usual discourse on Israel-Palestine. That said, mainstream media coverage of the hunger strike did not reflect its importance, despite the distraction, for UK media, of the General Election campaign. [Note 4] We could bemoan the influence of the opponents of Palestinian rights in this respect, but their efforts are a given. More productively, the solidarity movement needs to help supply news channels with authoritative and well-prepared commentators and to help journalists and editors overcome their timidity and bias. Whatever level of publicity is achieved, however, none would be possible without the courage, determination, unity and clear focus of the prisoners themselves, which at the same time has a direct effect in Israel-Palestine.
As in the past, this hunger strike inspired tremendous support across the entire Palestinian community not just because of the love and solidarity shown by their families to the 1,500 strikers themselves, but precisely because Israel’s long-term systematic use of imprisonment as a tool of intimidation has given almost every family a similar and therefore unifying experience. Just as the prisoners’ movement transcends factions, so such solidarity brings together Palestinians regardless of political affiliation, and is an expression of shared purpose across the three main territorial divisions of the Palestinian people, the diaspora in the refugee camps and beyond, those of the Occupied Territories and the Palestinian citizens of 1948 Israel itself.
Adept as it is at fomenting and exploiting inter-Palestinian divisions, and at feigning indifference to international criticism, Israel is actually more vulnerable both to international criticism [Note 5] and to internal resistance than its supporters care to admit. The prisoners’ hunger strike is one example of internal resistance, and it is one to which Israel is even more vulnerable because of its capacity to mobilise international opposition to Israeli breaches of humanitarian law.
Although undertaking and maintaining a hunger strike takes deep personal commitment, it is not at all a desperate gesture but an astute political action done in unity with others. It is designed not to sacrifice lives but to win concessions and, through winning those concessions, to develop unity through the prison walls, garner support from further afield, narrate the Palestinian cause as widely as possible, and exploit weaknesses on the Israeli side.
In almost every respect, the hunger strike that began on Prisoners’ Day was a substantial success. By the united decision of the prisoners themselves, the strike was suspended on 27 May, after an amazing duration of 41 days. The prison authorities agreed to start negotiating with the strikers’ leaders. The Israeli side were coerced by the courage of their inmates and by the knowledge (a further tribute to the organiser’s politically astute timing) that 5 June marked the 50th anniversary of the start of the ‘Six Day War’ which led to the present Occupation of Palestinian territories outside Israel’s 1948 borders. [Note 6]
The Director of the Palestinian Prisoners Affairs Commission, Issa Qaraqe, hailed the hunger strike as “an important achievement to build on in the future on the basis of the protection of the prisoners’ rights and dignity” and reported that 80% of the strikers’ demands had been conceded. The prisoners’ demands themselves were not widely publicised, yet the very fact that they need to be demanded at all underlines the politics of Israeli attempts to demoralise and dehumanise its Palestinian prisoners by restricting their social interaction and wellbeing.
THE PRISONERS’ DEMANDS
Here is a selection of most of the demands of people who should not be in prison at all:
First, social demands:
- end solitary confinement and administrative detention;
- kitchens to be under prisoners’ supervision;
- access to books and newspapers;
- landline phones for communication with family members;
- permitted visits from family to be resumed at twice per month and not to be restricted as punishment;
- visits to be allowed from other relatives;
- duration of family visits to be doubled to an hour and a half;
- permission to have photo of prisoner with family every three months;
- facilities for comfort of visitors and their families at prison gates;
- allow children and grandchildren under age 16 to visit prisoners;
- especially for female prisoners, improve transfer conditions and revise use of physical barriers between prisoners and visiting family members;
- treat prisoners in a humane way when transferring them by specially secure van.
Second, medical demands:
- allow regular and specialist medical checks and surgery as needed;
- release sick detainees, especially those with special needs and chronic illnesses;
- exempt prisoners from having to pay for their medication. [Note 7]
Although it remains to be seen how far Israel meets its commitment to the Palestinian prisoners, it is already clear that the hunger strike and demonstrations of support in the Occupied Territories, in Israel itself, in the wider solidarity movement and beyond – while there is still room for improvement in UK mainstream media coverage - rattled not just the prison bars but the apartheid state itself.
1. Palestinian journalist Ramzy Baroud, writing for Al-Jazeera, points to the parallel between Palestinians ‘imprisoned’ in the Occupied territories and those kept in Israeli prisons. He also argues that the hunger strike draws further political significance from its leader’s greater popularity inside and outside the Fatah party than the Palestinian Authority’s largely discredited President Mahmoud Abbas: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/05/palestinian-prisoners-hunger-strike-170509121104077.html.
3. The words are those of Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa: https://www.amnesty.org/en/press-releases/2017/04/israel-must-end-unlawful-and-cruel-policies-towards-palestinian-prisoners/.
4. Despite media silence or bias on this issue in Israel itself, there were also expressions of solidarity there: https://972mag.com/fighting-media-silence-on-the-palestinian-hunger-strike/127518/.
5. Earlier this year, for example, the Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv-based think tank close to the Israeli government, issued a report in which it admits that after Israel spent tens of millions of dollars to combat the rise of pro-Palestine solidarity, “results remain elusive”. It also concedes that the solidarity movement has created an “unfavorable zeitgeist around Israel” in many parts of the world; expanded from Europe to the US and elsewhere; deepened its alliances with major minority groups and social justice coalitions; migrated into mainstream left-wing parties in Europe and may be gaining traction in the US: https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/leaked-report-highlights-israel-lobbys-failures. This source is cited here in preference to the Reut Institute’s own website not only because it offers insightful comments on the report, but also because it includes a link to the original version of the report before its authors amended it in response to hostile criticism.
6. Interestingly, Peter Beaumont, the Guardian’s correspondent in Jerusalem and not first choice for even-handed reporting on Israel-Palestine, suggested on 27 May that the deal was a ‘rare recent success’ for Palestinians and a climb-down for the Israeli authorities despite their insistence that they hadn’t accepted any of the prisoners’ demands nor even negotiated with their representatives. Notwithstanding uncorroborated notions that the hunger strike was brought to an end through interventions by Presidents Trump or Abbas, most of the article effectively vindicates the prisoners’ action by including contextual information on the strike with quotes from some of its supporters and, in passing, even calls Hamas an ‘Islamic militant group’ rather than a ‘terrorist’ one: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/27/mass-palestinian-hunger-strike-israel-ends.