Hana’s hunger strike ends, but her punishment continues

Israel’s forced relocation of activist simply expands the walls of her prison.

Hana Shalabi is being compared by some to Winnie Mandela who was also exiled for her activism [EPA]

Santa Barbara, CA – As with Khader Adnan, Israel supposedly compromised with Hana Shalabi on day 43 of her hunger strike in protest against administrative detention and her abysmal treatment. But Israel’s concept of “compromise”, if considered, becomes indistinguishable from the imposition of a further “punishment”, notable for its vindictiveness.

How else to interpret Israel’s unlawful order to impose internal exile (not technically deportation, because she is being transferred coercively to a location within occupied Palestine, although referred to as deportation in the media and by the parties) on Hana Shalabi by sending her to the Gaza Strip for three years, far from her home village of Burqin in the northern part of the West Bank – and more significantly, far from her grief-stricken family?

Hunger strike a last resort for Palestinian prisoners

After interviewing her older sister Zahra a few days ago, the eloquent Palestinian blogger, Linah Alsaafin, summarised the prevailing attitude of many supporting Hana Shalabi: “I don’t want to immortalise her, I just want her to live.” Or put more bureaucratically in a statement to Reuters by Qadoura Fares of the Palestine Prisoners Society: “[W]e reject deportation, but this is her decision and her own life.”

We can join with her family and many others around the world in being relieved that Hana Shalabi did not die and join the Palestinian honour roll of martyrs. Yet Shalabi, in critical medical condition, is being transferred to a slightly more open prison than an Israeli jail – which is how Gaza has been described during its years of isolation, lockdown and blockade.

To call this release “freedom” is to make a mockery of the word, even to call it “release” is misleading. From a human rights perspective, such a release amounts to a new form of cruel and degrading punishment, that is, torture, disguised as a humanitarian gesture.

Comparison with Winnie Mandela

Hana Shalabi is now being compared by some with Winnie Mandela, who was also exiled to the remote town of Branford in South Africa, forbidden to leave, as a punishment for her non-violent and militant resistance to the apartheid regime that had imprisoned her then husband, Nelson Mandela.

When I had the opportunity to meet and spend time with her in 1968, a couple of years prior to her exile, she was a wonderfully radiant and magnetic personality with a deep political commitment to justice and emancipation from racism, yet a joyful presence who, despite living under apartheid, was life-affirming and inspiring to those who felt solidarity with her struggle.

When she returned from exile, she was radicalised, embittered, joined in some violent oppositional tactics, seemingly exhibiting the alienating impact of the punitive effort by the South African government to diminish and marginalise her.

This part of Winnie Mandela’s post-exile story should neither be forgotten, nor should it be ignored that she was not exiled when confronting the sort of life-threatening medical issues that Hana Shalabi faces, as she seeks to recover from this long hunger strike. Also, at least, Winnie Mandela’s youngest daughter, Zinzi, was allowed to accompany her, which qualifies as one exception to the total separation from loved ones that has been decreed for Hana Shalabi, who in her current condition cannot – by even the most paranoid Israeli mind – be considered a “political” threat, much less a “security” threat.

By this “deal”, Israel has compounded the crime of administrative detention with a shamefully gratuitous act of vindictiveness that expresses contempt for the humane realities of Palestinian lives already severely diminished by decades of oppressive occupation. This release to Gaza doubles – if not triples – the punishment of administrative detention, itself the originating abuse that was accompanied by the disgraceful physical and mental abuse of Hana Shalabi, as reported by her, and as witnessed by several of her family members.

Article 49(1) of the Fourth Geneva Convention reads as follows: “Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive.”

The intent here is clear, even though the language leave room for lawyers’ quibbles. Is the Gaza Strip another country? Israel itself claims that its 2005 disengagement from Gaza relieves it of all responsibility to the people of Gaza under international law. In any event, Israel’s order of banishment will be enforced in both directions, neither allowing Hana Shalabi to leave Gaza nor to enter the West Bank where her family lives.

Inside Story – Israel: A ‘democratic’ violator of rights?

As well, given mobility restrictions her family will not be able to visit her in Gaza even if allowed to do so. Finally, it should be appreciated that this prolonged family separation is a form of “collective punishment” that magnifies the pain and grief of Hana Shalabi’s family who will be denied even the opportunity to provide help and love that are obviously needed during what will be at very best her long and difficult physical and psychological recovery period.

Violation of international law

In this sense, the spirit and letter of Article 27 of Geneva IV has also been violated in her arrest, detention and now in this release. “Protected persons are entitled, in all circumstances, to respect for their persons, their honour, their family rights, their religious conviction and practices, and their manners and customs. They shall at all times be humanely treated and shall be protected especially against all acts of violence or threats thereof and against insults and public curiosity,” reads the convention.

Denying Hana Shalabi’s visitation rights while confined to an Israeli prison hospital prior to her order of “deportation” being implemented, as well as denying Physicians for Human Rights-Israel or Addameer the opportunity to examine and talk with her completes this stone coldness on the part of the Israeli prison administration.

It is up to the Palestinian solidarity movement not to let this experience of Palestinian hunger strikes be in vain. At best, these brave and lonely acts of defiant Palestinian resistance might be later interpreted as one of the earlier expressions of a “Palestinian Spring” that finally topples the regime of occupation.

At the very least, these hunger strikes should become a key moment in an intensifying campaign against the practice of administrative detention in occupied Palestine, as well as against abusive arrest procedures and general prison conditions that are habitually relied upon by Israeli military authorities. It is encouraging that plans have been announced for April activities designed to intensify the campaign started so movingly by Khader Adnan and Hana Shalabi.

Finally, this ambiguous punitive release of Hana Shalabi was apparently agreed upon not only on the 43rd day of her hunger strike, but on the eve of the 36th commemoration of Land Day by Palestinian activists within Israel and in occupied Palestine. It is important for all of us to recall that it was on this day in 1976 that Israel killed six Palestinian citizens of Israel who were protesting, in violation of a curfew then in effect, against Israel’s expropriation of their land.

The protests on Land Day 2012, especially near the Qalandiya checkpoint were met with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon, with some Palestinian injuries, and at least one death. Two Palestinian activists, Sam Bahour and Jafar Farah, living in the West Bank, summarised the situation with these words: “After the Arab revolutions, there’s awareness of the importance of popular participation. This has rattled the Arab regimes and now it’s frightening the Israeli government.”

It does appear that these hunger strikes, augmented by sympathetic and symbolic strikes within Israeli jails, in Palestine and around the world, as well as vibrant protests on Land Day, and a worldwide BDS movement, are all signs of a Palestinian reawakening that will gather political leverage as its momentum builds. This is my hope for the year ahead. 

Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades, most recently editing the volume International Law and the Third World: Reshaping Justice (Routledge, 2008).

He is currently serving his third year of a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

Follow him on Twitter: @rfalk13