Hundreds of Palestinian political prisoners held in Israel began a hunger strike on Palestinian Prisoners Day, marked every year on April 17. It is the largest collective action by Palestinian prisoners since 2012, when around 2,000 prisoners went on hunger strike and reached a deal with the Israeli government after 28 days.
Prisoners are demanding an end to the Israeli practice of administrative detention, based on a “secret file”, without charge or trial. They are also asking for improved medical conditions and visitation rights, for the abolition of solitary confinement, as well as the installation of pay phones in all prison wings to allow prisoners to communicate more easily with their families.
Hunger strikes have long been used as a form of non-violent resistance. Mahatma Gandhi engaged in several hunger strikes to protest British rule in India, while Irish republican prisoners in the 1980s also used hunger strikes to put pressure on the British government.
Palestine Monitor spoke with Mustafa Barghouti, secretary general of the Palestinian National Initiative, about the significance of this latest hunger strike, joined by at least 1,100 prisoners, according to Israel's Prison Service. Palestinian prisoners' organisations said an estimated 1,600 prisoners had announced their participation by Monday, and that more were expected to join.
PM: Why did you take part in one of the demonstrations in support of the hunger striking prisoners earlier this week?
Barghouti: Not only because it is our duty, but also because I believe this action of prisoners' strike is one of the most important and most noble forms of popular non-violent resistance. And I think these prisoners are putting their life at risk not only for the sake of their personal freedom, but also for the freedom of all the Palestinian people. I think that their strike should initiate a much wider popular non-violent resistance against the occupation, because I believe that nothing will change unless we change the balance of power between us and the Israeli occupation. Mass popular action is a way to do that.
In that sense the strike represents not only a very noble form of that resistance, but also a motivator to unity. One good thing about it is that it unites all Palestinians. This is not coincidental. There is not a single household in Palestine which did not have or does not have a prisoner in jail. Since the beginning of the occupation Israel has conducted more than one million arrests.
PM: The first mass hunger strike of Palestinian political prisoners took place in 1969. For many years, collective action was an important tool for prisoners to achieve more rights. What is the significance of the prisoners' movement in the context of the Palestinian struggle?
Barghouti: The actions of prisoners, including hunger strikes, have always been a unifying factor. Prisoners themselves attract a lot of sympathy, not only from the Palestinian people but also from the international solidarity movement.
During the last few years Israel has gradually taken several humanitarian rights from prisoners, including things they have achieved during previous strikes. I think the demands of the prisoners are purely humanitarian, part of what all prisoners in the world are entitled to. The right for visitation, the right to see their families, the right to communicate with their families. The right to see their children and hug their children.
There is also an issue with the Red Cross [ICRC], which reduced the number of visits from two per month to one per month, which means not all prisoners have visits once a month because the capacity of the Red Cross is also limited. Israel sometimes prohibits prisoners from visiting at all, like some prisoners from Gaza. Some of the prisoners in Gaza have not seen their families for years.
PM: Prisoners' demands include improved medical conditions. What are the main issues they face in this regard?
Barghouti: We know now that the Israelis are putting many of those who are suffering from cancer and very serious diseases in a very poor facility in Ramleh. And many of them are aching and suffering without sufficient medical care.
Yesterday I was in Beit Ummar [near Hebron in the southern West Bank] for a special event about a young man, 22 years old, called Jafar Awad. Jafar was sick, he had diabetes, and [while he was in prison] he was deprived of proper treatment till he was very sick. He was released just before he died, from pneumonia and complications from diabetes.
This strike is also about new laws that Israel has passed or is passing, which are oppressive and very serious, like increasing the sentences for children up to 20 years for throwing stones. Or the fact there are 300 child prisoners, some as young as 12. Not to mention the issue of administrative detention. This is the only country in the world that uses it in this way, where people can be put in jail for months and years without charges. Israel has widened the use of administrative detention, today there are 500 prisoners who are suffering from that.
PM: What do you make of Israel's response to the strike so far?
Barghouti: It's fascist, I would call it. [Israel's intelligence and transportation minister] Yisrael Katz called for executing Palestinian prisoners [in a tweet].
They are now talking about creating a concentration camp for prisoners on strike in Ketziot, [a prison in the Negev desert]. One of the bad laws Israel has passed in recent years is the law that allows force-feeding. And because the Israeli medical establishment refused to implement that law for medical reasons, now they want to create a [field hospital] in Ketziot, so they can use military doctors to force-feed.
I have very bad memories of force-feeding because in 1980 there was a strike and we lost three prisoners because of force-feeding. I was a doctor and I was treating the families of prisoners who were also on strike.
PM: Do you think more people will join the strike?
Barghouti: Yes I hope more prisoners will join, and I hope that public support will increase. Yesterday I called for two actions to support them. One is to enhance popular non-violent resistance, and I think we will see many demonstrations this week, especially on Friday. But also to enhance the boycott campaign of Israeli settlement products, because I think that Israel must feel there is a price for what is happening.
Photo: a woman holding a photograph of a prisoner on hunger strike. Credit: Zann H.