June 8, 2014
For families, activists and observers in Palestine, the passing of time has come to be loaded with a grave significance. Each 24 hours represents another day of hunger for hundreds of prisoners protesting administrative detention in Israeli jails: a new mark in an increasingly morbid tally that takes the situation of inmates closer to the brink.
Today the count reached 45 days, and as the figure edges upward the consequences for the 125 inmates look increasingly grim. At least 65 strikers are now in the hospital, where they are shackled to their beds 24 hours a day. According to a report from Addameer some are suffering from intestinal bleeding and vomiting blood. The protesters are committed to continue the strike until their demand – to end administrative detention, which amounts to indefinite imprisonment without trial – is met. But as their conditions worsen and day count increases, one is left wondering just how much the prisoners, and their bodies, can endure
Rami al-Barghouti knows the reality of the strike well. The 33-year-old had been in administrative detention since January when he joined the hunger strike on April 21st. When he was released by authorities, on the set release date, of the 2oth May, his body weight had dropped significantly, and he was immediately transferred to the hospital.
When considering the condition of his fellow strikers, his tone was grave. "The situation was very bad," he said. "When I left, there were still 20 prisoners in the Naqab prison. Their weight loss was extreme. Now many of them have been sent to hospital," he said.
When Palestine Monitor met al-Barghouti at his home in Kufr Ein, the table laid out with coffee, drinks and Quality Street chocolates seemed a harsh reminder of absolute scarcity endured by the strikers. One week after his release, al-Barghouti himself was unable to eat solid food. "My stomach will not accept anything, just soup," he said. "The recovery is very long and slow – it will be two weeks until I can eat normally."
Starvation and abuse
At this point, deteriorating health conditions are the most obvious concern for observers of the strike. But prisoners also face grave abuse from prison authorities – abuse, al-Barghouti reported, that started almost immediately after the strike began. "They took all the prisoners and collected them in a closed room, then took them into a tent, an open section outside in the sun," he told Palestine Monitor. "We were kept apart from what was happening in the rest of the prison, and away from the bathrooms."
"The manager of the Naqab prison treats the striking prisoners badly, interrogating them: he wants to punish them, to tire the prisoners out," said al-Barghouti. "We have no radio and no phone, so there is no contact between us and anyone outside the prison. They want to shut down any information coming from the hunger strikers to others in the prison."
The violations, continue – prison authorities reportedly give prisoners salt and water in urine-sample containers. Worryingly, a draft bill is currently being fast-tracked through the Israeli Parliament authorising the force-feeding of prisoners, a policy which Israeli medical professionals have condemned, in uncompromising terms, as utterly unacceptable. "Force-feeding is torture," Ziva Miral, spokesperson for the Israeli Medical Association said on Tuesday, "and we can’t have doctors participating in torture."
Now, when Rami reflects on the most difficult aspects of the strike, it is indeed the behaviour of authorities, not the hunger itself, which features most prominently. "The worst things?" he asks, "[they are] the section in which we lived, the treatment of the prison authority, and the fact that we didn’t know anything about our families. But despite this, we didn’t stop."
The combination of physical precarity and political isolation is a persistent theme in the hunger strike story. But while prison authorities continue to exploit the vulnerability of inmates, they real danger to strikers’ lives seems, still, to be a matter of concern. "The last time the Shabak said to the prisoners: 'If any prisoners die in the hunger strike, it’s normal,’" al-Barghouti recalled. "But when the prisoners’ lives are in danger, they will always be transferred to hospital. The prison authorities send them there to avoid the responsibility they should bear to the prisoners."
After more than six weeks of striking, the number of prisoners committed to hospitals, all in serious medical conditions, now stands at more than 65. But as the situations worsens for these inmates, the momentum behind the strike is growing. Across Palestine protests are taking place in support of the inmates, and on Friday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon echoed the strikers’ demand that Palestinian administrative prisoners should be released, or charged, without delay.
International pressure like this, al-Barghouti said, thats what the hunger strikers’ desperately need, especially as the strike reaches its critical stages. "There is no voice for Palestinian prisoners in the Israeli prisons, no-one to speak for them," he told Palestine Monitor. "Until now, among the prison authorities, there has been no response."
"But the prisoners will continue in the hunger strike. This is the only way to press the Shabak. It is the last method we can use inside the prison. It is the only thing we can do."