Against systematic persecution, Palestinian prisoners in Israel resort en masse to the only power they have left: putting their lives in the balance by refusing food, writes Khaled Amayreh in occupied Jerusalem
April 19, 2012
Thousands of Palestinian prisoners languishing in Israeli jails and detention camps have begun an open-ended hunger strike to protest a raft of grievances, including notorious administrative detention, solitary confinement, humiliating late- night searches and keeping inmates in jail after their prison terms have ended.
On Tuesday, as many as 2300 inmates reportedly returned their meals as part of the hunger strike which coincides with "Prisoners' Day".
There are as many as 4700 Palestinians languishing in Israeli jails, many of them purely political prisoners Israel is punishing for peacefully opposing Israel's brutal and decades-old occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Hundreds of inmates are held captive without charge or trial, ostensibly in order to break their will to resist. The detainees include doctors, college professors, poets, students and elected lawmakers.
Israel, which uses some of the harshest tactics developed to suppress restive Palestinians demanding freedom, refers to the prisoners as "terrorists" in order to demonise them in the eyes of the world and deprive them of public sympathy. However, empathy and solidarity with them is overwhelming, as nearly every Palestinian household has a relative, a friend or a loved one behind bars in Israel.
More than 700,000 Palestinians (20 per cent of the population) have experienced imprisonment in Israel at least once since Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967. Scores of young men continue to be rounded up by the Israeli occupation army on a daily basis.
Among the detainees fighting the "bowl battle" are three Egyptians and several other Arab inmates. Some 50 foreign activists who infiltrated the tight Israeli blockade of the West Bank are also fasting in solidarity.
Thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip took to the streets or held rallies and sit-ins to show their solidarity with their brethren in Israeli jails.
The campaign against open-ended captivity without charge or trial (administrative detention) has gathered momentum after two inmates went on a prolonged hunger strike recently. The first is Khadr Adnan, a young Palestinian activist whose hunger strike lasted for 66 days. Adnan was released Tuesday, but it is far from certain whether he will remain free or be rearrested as part of the Israeli policy of tormenting Palestinian activists.
The other prisoner is Hana Al-Shalabi, 23, who fasted for 44 days, demanding an end to administrative detention. Last month, Al-Shalabi, who lives in the northern West Bank, was deported to the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli occupation authorities calculated that the possible death of prisoners would trigger an all-out Intifada or uprising in the occupied territories, which could destabilise and imperil the regime of President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Abbas has saluted the prisoners, telling them their cause is at the top of his priority list. "We will not sleep or have peace of mind until all of you return home," said the Palestinian leader who was speaking on television, marking Prisoners' Day.
Abbas said he would approach signatory states of the Fourth Geneva Convention to apply the instrument's clauses to the Palestinians as a people under occupation.
The Palestinian leader said he hoped that Israel would be forced to treat Palestinian prisoners as prisoners of war.
Israel, which brazenly violates international laws and norms, doesn't consider itself an occupying power and calls the occupied territories "disputed areas". After more than 44 years of military occupation, millions of Palestinians remain denied their human rights and civil liberties.
The Palestinian community, meanwhile, is showing an exemplary unity in the face of Israeli attempts to crush the struggle for the prisoners' freedom.
"We are united and undivided when it comes to prisoners, and we will stand by our brothers and sisters in Israeli jails until their demands are met," said PA official Qaddura Fares, head of the Prisoners' Club.
"I expect more and more prisoners to join the hunger strike. This is a struggle for life and dignity," he added.
The mass hunger strike is being dubbed the "Karama strike" -- from the Arabic for dignity.
In addition to their demands that administrative detention and solitary confinement be terminated, prisoners are demanding an end inspections and night raids. They are also demanding an end to hefty fines and all actions resulting from the so-called "Shalit law", which imposes severe restrictions on prisoners affiliated with Palestinian resistance group Hamas.
According to Amnesty International's 2011 "Annual Report on Israel and the Occupied Territories": "Palestinians in the occupied territories subject to the Israeli justice system continue to face a wide range of abuses of their right to a fair trial. They are routinely interrogated without a lawyer and, although they are civilians, are tried before military not ordinary courts."
The same Amnesty report states: "Consistent allegations of torture and other ill-treatment, including of children, were frequently reported. Among the most commonly cited methods were beatings, threats to detainees or their family, sleep deprivation, and being subjected to painful stress positions for long periods. Confessions allegedly obtained under duress were accepted as evidence in Israeli military and civilian courts."
It is likely that the Israeli government will ignore the mass hunger strike, at least in its initial stage. Israel could also resort to draconian tactics, like force-feeding inmates
In the past, Israeli officials and leaders argued that Palestinian hunger strikes constituted an existential threat to Israel's survival. Such reactions have resurfaced lately in the manner in which the Israeli authorities treated foreign activists arriving in Israel to show solidarity with the Palestinians.
As for the Palestinians, they have no choice. Theirs is not only a battle for dignity. It is a battle for life as well.