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Israel and US: Common strategies to control political prisoners

Israeli and US treatment of political prisoners increasingly bear the same trademarks.

Last updated: 02 Jun 2014 10:13
Pam Bailey

Pam Bailey is a freelance journalist and activist who has lived and worked in the Gaza Strip.
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Protesters hold signs as they call for the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in front of the White House in Washington DC [AFP]

The Israeli and US governments are swapping playbooks in their determination to suppress resistance among those who already are among the most powerless.

The US military has been holding more than 100 men in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without charge or trial since 2002 - a practice which has long been a hallmark of Israeli oppression of Palestinians. And now Israel appears poised to re-institute the practice of force-feeding - labelled torture by both the World Medical Association and the UN Human Rights Commission - which has been employed by the Americans running the Guantanamo facility since it first opened.

In both cases, the goal is to render these individuals invisible, by prohibiting one of the oldest tactics of nonviolent resistance - the hunger strike.

"Hunger strikes are very much about power," says Fran Buntman, a professor of sociology at George Washington University and author of a book about Nelson Mandela and his imprisonment on Robben Island. "It's the attempt of powerless people to exert some power over their circumstances, and governments don't like people contesting their power. Part of the point of imprisoning people is to have control over their bodies, and the last thing the administration wants is for the detainees to take that power back."

The American 'gulag': Guantanamo

Of the nearly 800 individuals incarcerated in the Guantanamo prison since the launch of the so-called war on terror, 149 remain today, held in conditions widely labeled inhumane and without the opportunity to see or challenge the evidence that sent them there. Even the US government agrees it has no grounds to hold 78 of the men, having cleared them for release as far back as 2009. Yet they continue to be held behind bars, often in isolation, as their children forget them, their wives leave them and their parents die without seeing them.

While tactics such as force-feeding make it more difficult to sustain resistance, it is communication blackouts such as those imposed by the Obama administration on the Guantanamo hunger strike that wreak the greatest damage.

A year ago, I travelled to Yemen with a delegation from Codepink: Women for Peace, to account for 58 of the men held despite a US agreement that they should be released. There, we talked to a number of relatives who had family members who were emotionally and physically wasting away in Guantanamo. Among them was the cousin of Abdulhakim Ghalib Alhaq, who had been promised his freedom by US President Barack Obama to no avail. He was just 17 in 2001 when he left Yemen for Pakistan to study Islam, his family told us. Two months later, he disappeared. When they learned that the teenager had been seized along with five others in a house raid and was now in Guantanamo, his parents' health deteriorated. 

"When we are permitted phone calls," said his cousin, Qaid, "our news is mostly about deaths - first his father, then his mother and grandmother. He is losing everything familiar to him while he is behind bars."

Just one month before our trip, Obama had renewed his long-neglected pledge to close America's "gulag" - shamed by the detainees' resort to a tactic used throughout history to publicise and protest oppression, the hunger strike.

Jonathan Hafetz, an associate professor at Seton Hall University School of Law, wrote recently that, "The reality is that hunger strikes ... have an unparalleled ability to focus the world's attention on the ongoing plight of men whose situation is so desperate they would rather starve themselves than go on living in legal limbo."

However, although the hunger strike and the resulting publicity forced Obama to re-focus on their plight, only 12 detainees have been released since then - none of them Yemenis. Meanwhile, it is estimated that only 17 of the men have had the stamina required to maintain their strike, given the military's brutal approach to force-feeding.

In court papers filed on May 21, attorneys for Pakistani detainee Ahmed Rabbani reported that he had contracted a chest infection from the procedure, causing him to vomit blood repeatedly. They alleged that Rabbani endured several botched force-feeding attempts, including one in which the tube was pointing up, rather than down into his throat, causing him to feel as if the device was being pushed into his brain. In another attempt, Rabbani's airways were blocked when the liquid he was fed pooled in his throat, preventing him from breathing. The same week, US District Court Judge Gladys Kessler issued an order requiring the government to release videos of another detainee, Syrian Abu Wael Dhiab, that were taped when he was removed from his cell and force-fed. It will mark the first time that individuals not affiliated with the US government have seen the videos.

Israeli prisons for Palestinians

According to the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, there are currently 5,271 Palestinians being held as political prisoners in Israeli jails - including 192 without trial or charge (euphemistically called "administrative detention"), including eight members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

On April 24, around 120 of the administrative detainees launched the first collective hunger strike since the last one in 2012. (There have been numerous hunger strikes in the intervening period, but they all have been waged by individuals primarily seeking their own release, and typically were only partial in nature.)

In 2012, nearly 2,000 Palestinian prisoners refused to eat for approximately a month (with some fasting for as long as 77 days). One of their demands, granted in an agreement mediated by Egypt that brought the strike to a close, was a limitation on administrative detention in exceptional circumstances, as required by international law. However, since that time, Addameer reports that Israel has actually increased its use of the practice.

Today, Khaled Waleed of the UFree Network, which is coordinating a supportive petition drive, reports that the hunger strike has spread to virtually all of the administrative detainees as well as many other prisoners - bringing the total participants to an estimated 1,500. Their demand: Release of all those currently held in administrative detention unless they are charged and receive a fair trial, and an end to the practice going forward.

A May 22 letter to the United Nations secretary-general, demanding international pressure on Israel to obey international law, has been signed by 18 organisations, including Defense for Children International and the Israeli chapter of Physicians for Human Rights.

So far, reports indicate that more than 100 of the striking Palestinian political prisoners have been hospitalised, and prison authorities have retaliated with a number of repressive measures, including solitary confinement, denial of attorney visits, arbitrary transfers, late-night raids and disruptive, violent inspections.

However, the Palestinian hunger strikers may soon face a more serious challenge - the same struggle imposed on the Guantanamo detainees. In May, the Israeli Knesset's Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a bill that would allow district courts to authorise physicians with the state's prison service to treat detainees against their will. Although opposed by the Israeli Medical Association, the state healthy ministry and attorney general have already vetted the bill. If it is approved by the full Knesset, force-feeding will become legal and could soon be unleashed as another form of punishment on the striking prisoners.

George Annas, a bioethicist at the Boston University School of Public Health, wrote last year in the New England Journal of Medicine that the forced feeding of a person who is able to decide for himself "is not the practice of medicine; it is aggravated assault".

That is exactly the point, and the intent. Despite the feigned desire to save prisoners' lives, the real game, as Buntman pointed out, is power. But while tactics such as force-feeding make it more difficult to sustain resistance, it is communication blackouts such as those imposed by the Obama administration on the Guantanamo hunger strike that wreak the greatest damage.

David Remes, an attorney who gave up a lucrative corporate-law business to specialise in representing Guantanamo detainees, says he does not believe that prisoners have to literally starve to have an impact, but a hunger strike - or any other act of willful disobedience - must be "sustained, broad-based and well-publicised". Sustained public support for hunger strikers has forced results before, and it can work again.

Pam Bailey is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who has travelled extensively to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Yemen and Pakistan.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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