Palestinian prisoners revive Arab determination

More than 1,000 Palestinian detainees have followed Khader Adnan’s example in a struggle for freedom and dignity.

palestinian prisoners
Khader Adnan’s hunger strike has inspired many other Palestinian prisoners to use the tactic [GALLO/GETTY]

Cairo, Egypt – In recent weeks, the number of Palestinian detainees on hunger strike multiplied by one hundred, growing from ten to more than 1,000. The dramatic increase in hunger strikers coincided with Palestinian Prisoner Day – held to acknowledge the struggle of those in Israeli prisons – which was commemorated in mid-April, as Palestinian detainee Khader Adnan was released.

Approximately 40 per cent of men living in the occupied West Bank have been detained by Israel during some period of their lives. Nearly 5,000 Palestinians are currently held in Israeli prisons, to which most were illegally transferred from the occupied Palestinian territories. Of these, hundreds are in administrative detention, which means that they are held indefinitely and without trial.

In February, Khader Adnan, held in administrative detention in an Israeli prison, made waves across the Palestinian territories, Arab world and beyond through his months-long hunger strike. Adnan had been detained several times since 1999; but when he was arrested most recently in December, he began a hunger strike in protest of the conditions that he, and thousands of other Palestinian prisoners, must endure.

Scores of Palestinians in cities throughout the Gaza Strip and the West Bank rallied for Adnan’s release as his health deterred. After months without food, Israel set a date for the nearly dead prisoner’s release.

Adnan mobilised the Palestinian population and served as a stark reminder to the rest of the world of the value of human dignity. As Adnan ended his hunger strike, Hana Shalabi, also held in administrative detention, began hers. Re-arrested in February after being released in the October Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange, Shalabi refused food for more than six weeks until her release date was set. The two became symbols of defiance and perseverance – not just for Palestinian prisoners, but for those across the Arab world who continue to struggle for freedom.

The prisoners who followed in their footsteps amount to a Palestinian uprising from the most oppressed faction of the population. While this is not the first time for detainees to strike, the context of the Arab Spring and Palestinian solidarity through protest has increased both their determination and numbers. Former prisoner Louay Odeh from Gaza, who took part in a 2011 hunger strike, kept a diary of his personal experiences. In it he explained that after four days on hunger strike, life became painful, and that the only thing that kept him going was the knowledge of his popular support.

Freedom and dignity

On the response of Israeli jailers to the hunger strikers, Odeh wrote: “They distribute special news about [the prisoners], like claims about the declining number of hunger strikers and names of those who have broken their fasts. They also do their best to give hunger strikers the impression that life outside is moving on normally and no-one there cares about them.” 

For Odeh, lawyers who brought news of local and international support rallies for the prisoners were his main source of determination.

In a letter that Adnan wrote to explain the purpose of his hunger strike, he said: “I have been humiliated, beaten and harassed by interrogators for no reason, and thus I swore to God I would fight the policy of administrative detention to which I and hundreds of my fellow prisoners fell prey.”

“Even after over 10,000 have been killed, countless wounded and still more facing severe hardship, the protests have not ceased … the struggle for freedom is far greater than the sacrifices they are forced to make.

While Palestinian prisoners starve for the sake of freedom and dignity, elsewhere in the region Arab governments starve their populations to drive them to abandon similar demands. In Egypt, the year since the fall of Mubarak has come with dire economic conditions and other hardships. Some suggest that these hardships are facilitated by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to make the population regret the revolution.

A series of energy crises have left Egypt’s poorest in daylong searches for gas – the main source of household energy. Meanwhile, intermittent fuel shortages and long lines of vehicles at petrol stations have resulted in increasing daily hardships in an already difficult time. Separation walls throughout downtown Cairo, impenetrable by vehicle or foot, have been strategically placed by the government for “security” purposes and only further added to the difficulties of life in an already congested city.

There has been a decline in security, due to crimes that the police force not only refuse to stop but is also often believed to be implicit in. These issues are both problematic in and of themselves and are associated with a drop in tourism, a main source of income for the nation. Many accuse SCAF of intentionally driving people to look nostalgically at the relative economic and physical security of the Mubarak era, and rescind their continued calls for freedom.

In Syria, mass punishment aimed at quelling any desire to oppose the Assad regime has been far more dramatic. Entire cities, including Deraa, Hama and Homs, have been blockaded and bombed mercilessly. But even after more than 10,000 have reportedly been killed, countless wounded and still more facing severe hardship, the protests have not ceased. The Syrians confirm that the struggle for freedom is far greater than the sacrifices they are forced to make.

Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi did not set himself on fire due to the financial hardships of his life, but for the sake of dignity. And while Egypt’s high poverty rate is often cited alongside discussions of its revolution, the Cairene youth who were at the centre of the struggle have repeatedly affirmed that freedom remains at the forefront of their cause.

The regimes of the Arab world should keep in mind that economic and even physical hardships were not the primary reasons that youths rose up, and the worsening of these conditions will not make them revoke their calls for freedom and dignity.

The Palestinian detainees on hunger strike are an important reminder to those, region-wide, who continue to struggle for greater rights, and an inspiration to those committed to peaceful protest.

Sarah Mousa graduated from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2010, and is a 2010-2011 Fulbright Scholar in Egypt.