The hunger strike: Where food is more than nourishment

What do Bobby Sands, Nelson Mandela and Palestinian hunger strikers have in common?

The Nelson Mandela statue is seen as demonstrators take part in a rally in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails, in the West Bank city of Ramallah
Hunger strikes are no stranger to the Palestinian political landscape [Reuters]

In prisons all across the world, in as many languages as there are cruel despots ruthlessly hanging on to power, political prisoners are called out from the isolation of their cells to stand and assure their jailers that they’ve not magically escaped overnight. For them, prison is a choice, their principles are not.

Often faceless to most but themselves, each collective that struggled to maintain personal dignity while seeking shared justice has become a torch bearer; they are elements of an age-old arch of liberty bound by resistance, sacrifice and little else. 

The march from Bobby Sands to Nelson Mandela to Palestinian hunger strikers is steady and unbroken. It derives its strength from resistance as ancient as tyranny itself.

READ MORE: How my father survived a hunger strike in Israel

Who today remembers the names of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst? In early 20th-century England, these pioneering suffragettes and their many sisters were imprisoned time and time again for little more than rejecting systemic patriarchy. Once there, many said no to food while their jailers said yes to torture. In a powerful account of the effects of forced feeding, suffragette Mary Leigh recounted her experience:

“I was then surrounded and forced back onto the chair, which was tilted backward. There were about ten persons around me. The doctor then forced my mouth so as to form a pouch, and held me while one of the wardresses poured some liquid from a spoon; it was milk and brandy.

After giving me what he thought was sufficient, he sprinkled me with eau de cologne, and wardresses then escorted me to another cell on the first floor.

The wardresses forced me onto a bed (in the cell) and two doctors came in with them. While I was held down a nasal tube was inserted. It was two yards long, with a funnel at the end; there was a glass junction in the middle to see if the liquid was passing.

The end was put up left and right nostrils on alternate days. Great pain was experienced during the process, both mental and physical.

One doctor inserted the end up my nostril while I was held down by the wardresses, during which process they must have seen my pain, for the other doctor interfered (the matron and two other wardresses were in tears) and they stopped and resorted to feeding me by spoon. More eau de cologne was used.”

Inside Story: Is force-feeding a form of torture?

The South Africa experience

Robben Island, just off Cape Town, South Africa, is the country’s highest security prison and has been used since the end of the 17th century to isolate political prisoners of the day. In the mid 1740s, Sayed Abdurahman Moturu (one of Cape Town’s first imams) was exiled there after leading the early resistance against the Dutch East India Company. He died there a decade later, and his gravestone became a shrine that Muslim political prisoners would pay homage to when leaving the island.

Robben Island was home to a veritable Who’s Who of political resistance during the revolution that ultimately toppled South African apartheid. Mandela served 18 of his 27 years there.

One month after Mandela’s release on February 11, 1990, hundreds of other remaining political prisoners, including members of the African National Congress (ANC), its rival the Pan Africanist Congress, and the Black Consciousness Movement went on hunger strike demanding their release under a general amnesty for those formally designated as political prisoners.

Palestinians mourn Nelson Mandela

The hunger strikers had been precluded from the amnesty because of their individual tactics in confronting apartheid. The strike was their way of challenging the government’s definition of “acceptable” resistance.

In a statement of political principle smuggled from the Island, the hunger strikers defined political prisoners as ”all incarcerated people who have engaged themselves in various ways in the struggle against the system of apartheid”. Not long after, most of these strikers were released.

READ MORE: What it means to be a Palestinian prisoner in Israel

‘They were incredibly determined’

Often, hunger strikes do not end with a joyful break of the fast but rather loss of life. Nowhere is that ultimate sacrifice more dramatically spoken than in the not-too-distant history of Republican resistance to British tyranny.

Beginning in 1972, then in 1980, and again in 1981, Irish Republicans by the dozens refused food as they risked all to obtain, among other things, prisoner of war status, the right to wear their own clothing, and freedom of association. When the final hunger strike ended, seven members of the Provisional IRA and three of the Irish National Liberation Army had died in Long Kesh Prison, or the Maze.

Although Bobby Sands, who died less than a month after being elected a Member of Parliament, has become synonymous with the hunger strike, ten other political prisoners sacrificed their lives in the Maze and another 61 people lost their lives to related street violence that raged outside its walls during the strikes.

In a begrudging testament to the determination and sacrifice of the strikers, one of the prison jailers noted: “At first we thought they were dirty animals. The stench was incredible. Our stomachs turned when we went near the cells and we couldn’t understand how anyone could live in such filth. But eventually there was some grudging respect for those on the protest.”

Hunger strikes do not end with a joyful break to fast but rather loss of life [The Associated Press]
Hunger strikes do not end with a joyful break to fast but rather loss of life [The Associated Press]

Palestinian prisoners: Vanguards of national struggle

To many, resistance is born not of simple choice but, rather, of principled necessity, no matter what the ultimate personal cost may be. Nowhere is that more powerfully viewed than through the prism of Palestinian political prisoners who, by the thousands, have lived and often died in timeless campaigns to obtain justice from deep behind “the mask” of prisons walls.

Israel views all who challenge its reach as enemy combatants whether they be 10- year-olds who refuse to stop when ordered or 80-year-olds who carry the bodies of their murdered grandchildren to the martyrs’ cemeteries that have become so much the norm throughout Occupied Palestine.

Palestinian political prisoners have long been in the vanguard of a national struggle to confront and dismantle the shroud of Israeli apartheid.

Yesterday the latest Palestinian hunger strike came to a negotiated end. The strikers demanded a range of fundamental human and political rights, including an end to administrative detention, an end to solitary confinement, an end to detention outside of the Occupied Territories, more family visits and the ability to pursue higher education.

In the days leading up to the strike’s conclusion, more than 1,800 political prisoners throughout Israel, including hundreds of uncharged detainees, endured 40 days of privation.

According to Israeli daily Ha’aretz, 60 prisoners were sent to hospital because their medical condition had deteriorated, and 592 others were moved to prison infirmaries for observation.

During the strike Palestine exploded as family and friends of the strikers as well as those who share their national journey took to the streets in support. Many were injured, including some felled by Israeli gunfire.

What’s behind Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike? – Inside Story

Demonstrations in support of the strikers were held in dozens of countries across the world by activists, students, trade union members, religious leaders and parliamentarians.


More than a dozen South African political leaders and public figures undertook a day-long solidarity fast, including deputy minister Nomaindia Mfeketo – who herself was detained several times in the 1980s for anti-government activism.

Hunger strikes are no stranger to the Palestinian political landscape.

Over the years, they’ve played a central role in challenging a despotic state fuelled and sustained by arbitrary, often indefinite, detention under inhumane conditions punctuated by outright torture that has taken the lives of at least 72 political prisoners since 1967.

Ranging from short-term defiances in isolated prisons to mass hunger strikes by thousands that quickly spread throughout the Israeli Gulag, these acts of political will and resistance have a history going back some 50 years.

Beginning in 1969 with a spontaneous short-lived hunger strike in two prisons, the strikes reached their numerical high point in 1992 when some 7,000 prisoners stopped eating for more than two weeks. 

There have been a number of mass hunger strikes by Palestinian political prisoners: 3,000 went on strike for 20 days in 1987, 4,000 were on strike for 18 days in 2004, and 2,000 prisoners went on a month-long hunger strike in 2012. In the longest hunger strike to date, several hundred prisoners refused food for some 63 days in 2014. During that strike, 70 were hospitalised and subsequently returned to prison.

INFOGRAPHIC: A timeline of Palestinian mass hunger strike in Israel

In 1970, hunger striker Abdul Qader Abu al-Fahm was not so fortunate. Nor were Rasem Halawah and Ali Jafari in 1980. All three hunger strikers died as a result of force-feeding procedures.

Though the hunger strikers have challenged a wide range of conditions of confinement over the years – including arbitrary treatment, use of solitary confinement, substandard prison conditions, bans on family visits, poor medical care and the failure to meet sanitary needs of female prisoners – the one constant throughout has been a challenge to the system of administrative detention.

Under this practice, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian prisoners have been detained, many for years on end and without any formal charges or the benefit of civilian judicial proceedings, in clear violation of established international humanitarian law.

In 2011, renowned professor and author Ahmad Qatamesh (recently detained again a few days ago), who spent more than eight years in prison during multiple administrative detentions, stated in an appearance before a military court what generations of Palestinian detainees have experienced: “You are destroying my life and I want to know why. As a human being I have my own mind and I am educated, and I want to know what I am detained for. The military prosecution talks of its professionalism, and meanwhile I have no rights?”

Administrative detention is detention without the safeguards of formal charges or trial. When prolonged or repeated, it constitutes cruel and degrading treatment or punishment. It is the hallmark of a draconian “security” system which has been used since 1967 to dampen political resistance in the Occupied Territories.

It has been estimated that at any given time, some three to four thousand “security prisoners” are detained, or serving sentences in Israeli prisons under far more severe conditions than those established for “criminal prisoners”.

Likewise, at any given time, hundreds of these “security prisoners” are held pursuant to purely administrative detention orders with no intent by Israel to ever try them for a criminal offence, a violation of their fundamental rights to a fair trial.

READ MORE: Israel – The house of hate

The right to liberty is one of the core tenets of human rights and prolonged arbitrary detention constitutes a fundamental breach of international customary law. Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states:

1. Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedures as are established by law.

2. Anyone who is arrested shall be informed, at the time of arrest, of the reasons for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against him.

4. Anyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court, in order that that court may decide without delay on the lawfulness of his detention and order his release if the detention is not lawful.

The provisions of the Covenant are not absolute and provide some flexibility in limited and well-defined circumstances, which permit States to temporarily suspend its mandate. However, the exception was not intended as a pretext whereby a state may escape its obligations by declaring itself to be in a perpetual state of emergency. Yet that is precisely what Israel has done throughout its existence.

To understand the determination of Palestinian hunger strikers demands a walk down the pathway of history of those that have been swept up by a brutal state that sees no limit to its power or abuse.

Israel views all who challenge its reach as enemy combatants whether they are 10-year-olds who refuse to stop when ordered to, or 80-year-olds who carry the bodies of their murdered grandchildren to the martyrs’ cemeteries that have become the norm throughout Occupied Palestine.

READ MORE: How Israeli soldiers interrogated me

Palestinians’ unbroken march

In Israel, Palestinian detainees can be interrogated for a period of 75 days and denied access to a lawyer for up to 60. Historically, it has made brutal use of essentially unlimited opportunities to interrogate political detainees without the safeguard of counsel.

Until outlawed in 1999 by its High Court of Justice, Israeli agents routinely used interrogation methods that constitute a veritable primer for torture. Among other procedures, detainees were subjected to sleep deprivation by being bound in painful positions, having to suffer loud music or having their heads covered with a filthy sack while being exposed to extreme heat or cold.

Although the latest Palestinian hunger strike has ended. The core conditions that triggered it remain untouched… unchanged… guaranteeing future strikes will once again confront an Israeli system of justice.

Often, they were tied to a low chair that was tilted forward with their hands tightly cuffed. On other occasions interrogees were forced to stand with their hands tied and drawn upwards, forced to lie on their back on a high stool with their body arched backwards, or made to crouch on their toes with their hands tied behind them. 

Notwithstanding its ban of such techniques, the court went on to hold that agents could continue to use “physical pressure” upon detainees in the matter of a so-called “ticking time-bomb”, relying on the rationale of “necessity”.

As reported in May 2007, agents continued to rely upon this judicial imprimatur for lawful torture in a “small” percentage of cases. Today, Palestinian political prisoners report that conditions of confinement and interrogation are but a variation on a theme rendered illegal almost 20 years ago.

Talk to Al Jazeera – Israeli lawyer: Palestinians ‘have the right to fight’

For example, many detainees report being held in solitary confinement in narrow, windowless cells completely isolated from their surroundings. Others described exposure to extremes of heat and cold and sleep deprivation. Hygiene conditions have been depicted as abominable; among other things, prison authorities often do not allow detainees to shower, change clothes, or even use toilet paper. Food is poor in quality and quantity, and detainees lose weight while in custody.

In the interrogation room itself, prisoners are forced to sit bound to a chair and cannot move for hours or even days at a time. Interrogators routinely shout at and torment detainees, often threatening to harm their relatives. On occasion physical force is still used against them.

As of April 2017 there were 6,300 Palestinian political prisoners, including 300 children, 61 females and 13 Palestinian Legislative Council members, entombed in Israeli prisons. In addition, 500 uncharged and untried detainees languish alongside them, completely in the dark as to what they did that caused the loss of their freedom. Almost all of these detainees are imprisoned inside Israel in further violation of international law which bars the transfer of Palestinian detainees outside the Occupied Territory.

These political prisoners continue an unbroken march of 50 years. In December 2012, the office of then Prime Minister Salam Fayyad reported that since 1967, 800,000 Palestinians – roughly 20 percent of the total population and 40 percent of the male population – had been imprisoned by Israel at one point in time.

According to Palestinian estimates, 70 percent of Palestinian families have had one or more family members sentenced to jail terms in Israeli prisons as a result of activities against the occupation.

Although the latest Palestinian hunger strike has ended, the conditions that triggered it remain unchanged, guaranteeing future strikes will once again confront an Israeli justice system that sees indefinite detention and torture as mainstays of its brutal brand of apartheid and occupation. 

The march to freedom can be long and difficult. It is costly and demands of occupied people creative and determined resistance in the streets and in the prisons. For Palestinians, there is no choice.  

Source: Al Jazeera