Palestinian prisoners take reins from faltering leaders

The Palestinian Authority is losing its relevance as hunger strikers galvanise support across party lines.

Hana Shalabi
Protesters hold pictures of Palestinian prisoner Hana al-Shalabi, on hunger strike for three weeks [EPA]

Ramallah, West Bank – It began with Khader Adnan’s sudden and bold declaration: “My dignity is more important than my life.”

And with that he refused food for the next 66 days. With each day he persisted, more and more people around the world were riveted to this man’s brave confrontation of Israel’s draconian policy of administrative detention. But perhaps more significantly, Palestinians from all political parties – as well as no political party – united and rallied together in support of this man and against Israel’s unfair treatment of Palestinian prisoners.

Now, Hana al-Shalabi approaches the completion of her third week on hunger strike. Like Adnan, Shalabi, 29, is protesting administrative detention, torture and humiliation at the hands of Israeli soldiers.

 Hundreds of Palestinians join hunger strike

These individuals represent not just the 300 Palestinians currently in administrative detention, or the over 5,000 Palestinians still in Israeli prisons. They exemplify and speak for all Palestinians in a way that no politician or political party has been able to do for a long time.

The authorities of the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been simultaneously vying for power while nominally trying to “reconcile” the occupied land’s divisions. Meanwhile, Adnan and Shalabi have galvanised Palestinian support across party lines. 

“She really makes me want to join the revolution again,” said one young man, a former fighter in the Al-Aqsa Brigade, who is now working for the Palestinian Authority’s security forces.

Shalabi began her strike as soon as she was detained by Israeli forces on February 16. She was already well-acquainted with the cruelty of administrative detention, which allows Israel to hold Palestinians indefinitely without charge or evidence. Shalabi had recently spent over two years under that status and was released last October in the prisoner swap deal between Hamas and Israel.

The PA’s ability to convince the population of its legitimacy is at an all-time low. Contrary to the fantasies spun about the West Bank’s prosperity, people in Palestine are destitute. The cost of living has never been higher: gas, electricity and food prices have skyrocketed, and food insecurity among the population is estimated at 40 per cent.

On top of that, a cash-strapped government – with over $1bn in debt and unfulfilled loans – is speaking of raising taxes and slashing more services. The dissatisfaction with the PA’s performance has ignited protests in all West Bank cities and prompted even some Fatah supporters to speak of it being time to dissolve the PA.

In Gaza, the state of affairs is even grimmer, due to the six-year siege imposed on the coastal enclave. An acute power crisis threatens a “collapse of essential services”. Hospitals are close to running out of the necessary power to operate, the amount of available drinking water has dropped by 60 per cent and food prices are surging.

Over the past six months, PA President Mahmoud Abbas and the Hamas government have had their moments of glory. President Abbas generated short-lived exhilaration when he took his bid for statehood to the United Nations last September and Hamas was highly praised when it secured the release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for Israeli corporal-turned-sergeant Gilad Shalit.

But these political manoeuvres are intended and only serve to defend politicians’ positions and spheres of power in the midst of an internecine conflict over control, rather than mobilise a national resistance movement.

In the meantime, Israel has quietly escalated its colonisation and tightened its control over occupied Palestinian territories. In February alone, 380 Palestinians were arrested, 158 individuals were displaced and 825 olive trees were uprooted by Israeli forces. Those numbers do not even speak to the significant uptick in vandalism and attacks by settlers and the deaths and injuries suffered by Gazans from continued aerial bombardments.

The status quo in Palestine is becoming less bearable for more people and the current leadership has proven unable or unwilling to challenge it. But then again, Israel is not the only power at risk of losing its relevance.

As Mourad Jadallah, a legal researcher with Addameer, a prisoners’ rights organisation in Ramallah, told Asa Winstanly in an interview: “Why did the Palestinian media and the Palestinian Authority ignore Khader Adnan and his hunger strike? Because he’s [affiliated with] Islamic Jihad? Or because he’s taking the memory back to the days when the prisoners were leading the national resistance?”

Khader Adnan and Hana al Shalabi have reinvigorated resistance and raised the long-flagging morale of people on the streets. This is a dramatic testament to the adage that change can only come from below – so maybe it’s time we stop looking to the top.

Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in the West Bank, Palestine. She is Editor at The Palestine Monitor and a graduate of Stanford University.