Friday, July 03, 2020

Starving in Palestine: the power of empty stomachs

By Patrick Strickland - October 17, 2012
Section: [Life under Occupation] [Behind Bars]
Tags: [Hunger Strike] [Life behind bars]

Ramallah — Presently being held in a prison clinic in Ramle, Samer al-Barq has launched his third hunger strike this year, demanding his immediate release from administrative detention. In September, Israeli and Egyptian negotiators agreed to release al-Barq into Egypt in exchange for ending his hunger strike, but Israel did not honor its end of the bargain.

Because Israel unilaterally violated the agreement, al-Barq’s lawyers announced that he will no longer accept a deal that places him in exile, instead vowing to hunger strike until he is released into Jayyous, his village located in the northern West Bank near Qalqiliya.

Administrative detention is prolonged imprisonment with neither charge nor trial, without access to evidence, and without knowledge of the actual charges against them. Under British Mandatory rule, several notable Zionist leaders of the time, many of whom later became Israeli statesman, decried the practice as inhumane.

But over the years, Israel has made extensive use of this draconian, indeed Kafkaesque, tool by imprisoning thousands of Palestinians under the administrative file.

According to B’Tselem, from 219 administrative detainees in Israeli prisons at the end of 2011, 29 percent had been held between six months to a year, 24 percent from one to two years, and another 18 individuals between two and five years. As recently as September, Israel held 4,606 Palestinian political prisoners, 212 of which were in administrative detention.

Noting the Palestinian Authority’s inability to improve the conditions of their imprisonment let alone secure their release, prisoners have taken their fates into their own hands and launched several hunger strike campaigns, a few of which won international attention.

Last Spring Khader Adnan and Hana Shalabi, both accused of illegal activities with Islamic Jihad and held in administrative detention, nearly starved themselves to death before eventually being released. Over 2,000 prisoners followed their lead and struck a stultifying blow to the institutions of occupation following a 28 mass hunger strike that started in April.

Samer al Barq’s father holds up a picture of his son in Jayyous, Qalqiliya

In May, al-Barq ended a month long hunger strike after his lawyers reached an agreement with Israel. Less than a week later, after Israel broke its promise and renewed his administrative detention, he began an astounding display of determination and steely fortitude by going 125 days without food.

Samir Issawi and Ayman Sharawna, both of whom were released last October in the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap only to be rearrested shortly after, are in critical condition: prisoner rights groups such as Adameer, Al-Haq, and Physicians for Human Rights in Israel, have condemned Israel for inflicting psychological and physical abuse on Issawi and Shawarna, who are at the time of writing on their 78th and 109th days of hunger strike.

Israel’s refusal to release al-Barq, Issawi, and Sharawna threatens to reverse the immediate gains achieved by past hunger strikes.

Starving for freedom

As a tactic, hunger striking must be understood as part of a much grander, largely nonviolent struggle against the brutal tutelage of the occupation—a rebellion that has been intentionally overlooked by mainstream Western media, buried beneath page after page about homemade rockets from the Gaza Strip that usually land in vacant lots.

During the course of the “Arab Spring,” a conveniently catchy and marketable concept for corporate media, Egyptians and Tunisians became revolutionary heroes, but Western commentators mostly perpetuated tired old stereotypes of Palestinians as terrorists threatening an embattled Israel trying earnestly to preserve both its democratic character and its very existence.

In June, the New York Times ran a report in which Nathan Thrall argued that Palestinian violence is inevitable because “a number [of Palestinians] would welcome the prospect of an escalation, especially among supporters of Hamas, who argue that violence has been the most effective tactic in forcing Israel and the international community to act.” Whether by design or not, this shortsighted line of thought squarely places the entirety of the blame for violent confrontations on Palestinians. The Third Intifada, as he argues after all, is “inevitable.”

Thrall dismisses the effectiveness of Palestinian nonviolent protest, arguing that the Palestinian Authority sees it as too risky to its own diplomatic efforts and would prevent it before it spread. Not once does he mention that a new wave of nonviolent forms of resistance has flourished, though having been almost uniformly greeted by Israeli Occupation Forces with state-sanctioned violence.

These nonviolent approaches are purposefully designed to challenge Israel’s increasingly blatant Apartheid-like policies and include weekly marches, sit-ins, strikes, freedom rides, and hunger strikes.

Neither administrative detention nor hunger striking is new in the Israeli-Palestinian context. But in the vast storm of misinformation that surrounds the Palestinian struggle for liberation from oppressive colonial rule, Israel’s excessive use of administrative detention has only recently received noteworthy public condemnation. On the other hand, hunger striking by Palestinian prisoners, though not without historical parallel, has over the course of the last year proven to be far more successful due to the role of the social media and the spreading view of Israel as an Apartheid state.

Bobby Sands, the 27 year-old Irish Republican Army volunteer who died in a British military prison in 1981 after going 66 days without eating, described the weighty task of hunger strikers in a poem:

Oh! Whistling winds why do you weep
When roaming free you are,
Oh! Is it that your poor heart’s broke
And scattered off afar?
Or is it that you bear the cries
Of people born unfree,
Who like your way have no control
Or sovereign destiny?

The remaining hunger striking prisoners—literally starving to death for the freedom to live—simultaneously reclaim unity and dignity, which they have systematically denied by both Israel and their own malignant leadership.

Patrick O. Strickland is a freelance journalist and an Israel-Palestine correspondent for BikyaMasr. His work has been published by Palestine Chronicle, Counterpunch,, and the Alternative Information Center, among others.

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