Santa Barbara, CA – Can anyone doubt that if there were more than 1,500 prisoners engaged in a hunger strike in any country in the world other than Palestine, the media in the West would be obsessed with the story? Such an obsession would, of course, be greatest if such a phenomenon were to occur in an adversary state, such as Iran or China, but almost anywhere it would be featured news, that is, anywhere but Palestine. It would be highlighted day after day, and reported on from all angles, including the severe medical risks associated with such a lengthy refusal to take food, with respected doctors and human rights experts sharing their opinions.
At this time there are two Palestinians who were the first to start this current wave of resistance to the practice of administrative detention, Thaer Halalheh and Bilal Diab, enduring their 70th day without food. Both men are reported by respected prisoner protection association, Addameer and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, to be in critical condition with their lives hanging in the balance. Examining doctors indicated recently that both detainees were reported to “suffer from acute muscle weakness in their limbs that prevents them from standing” and are under the “dual threat” of “muscle atrophy and thromohophilia, which can lead to a fatal blood clot”.
Despite this dramatic state of affairs, until today there has been scant notice taken by Western governments, media and even the United Nations, of the life threatening circumstances confronting Halalheh or Diab, let alone the massive solidarity strike that is of shorter duration, but still notable as a powerful expression of nonviolent defiance.
In contrast, consider the attention that the Western media has been devoting in recent days to a lone blind Chinese human rights lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, who managed to escape from house arrest in Beijing, find a safe haven at the US embassy, arrange a release and then seek an exit from China. This is an important and disturbing international incident, to be sure, but is it truly so much more significant than the Palestinian story as to explain the total neglect of the extraordinary exploits of thousands of Palestinians who are sacrificing their bodies, quite possibly their lives, to nonviolently protest severe mistreatment in the Israeli prison system, and by extension, the oppressiveness of an occupation that has gone on for 45 years?
“Hana Shalabi was among those released in the prisoner exchange, but then barely recovering from her prior detention period, was rearrested in a night arrest raid, once again confined by an administrative detention decree for a further four months in Israeli jail.“
Except among their countrymen, and to some extent the region, these many thousand Palestinian prisoners have been languishing within an opaque black box for more than four decades, are denied international protection, exist without rights of their own, and cope as best they can without even a proper acknowledgement of their plight. There is another comparison that comes to mind. Recall the outpouring of concern, grief and sympathy throughout the West for Corporal Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was captured on the Gaza border and held captive by Palestinians for five years. A powerful global campaign for his release on humanitarian grounds was organised, and received constant reinforcement in the media.
World leaders pleaded for his release, the UN secretary general exhibited concern and Israeli commanding officers even told IDF fighting forces during the massive attacks on Gaza at the end of 2008 – that killed more than 1,450 Palestinians – that the real mission of Operation Cast Lead was to free Shalit, or at least inflict pain on the entire civilian population of Gaza for his capture, a grotesque instance of unlawful collective punishment.
When Shalit was finally released in a prisoner exchange a few months ago there was a joyful homecoming celebration in Israel that abruptly ended when, much to the disappointment of the Israeli establishment, Shalit reported good treatment during captivity. Shalit’s father went further, saying if he was a Palestinian he would have tried to capture Israeli soldiers.
Hunger strikes, administrative detention and Palestinian witness
This current wave of hunger strikes started on April 17, Palestinian Prisoners’ Day, and was directly inspired by the recently completed long and heroic hunger strikes of Khader Adnan (66 days) and Hana Shalabi (43 days), both of whom protested against the combination of administrative detention and abusive arrest and interrogation procedures. It should be understood that administrative detention depends on accusations contained in secret evidence not disclosed to the detainee or defence lawyers and allows Israel to imprison Palestinians for six months at a time, without bringing any criminal charges, with terms indefinitely renewable as they expire.
Hana Shalabi was among those released in the prisoner exchange, but then, barely recovering from her prior detention period, was rearrested in a night arrest raid, once again confined by an administrative detention decree for a further four months in an Israeli jail. Consider, also, the experience of Thaer Halahla. Despite the fact he is only 33 years of age, he has been placed in administrative detention eight times for a total of six and a half years, despite the absence of any signs that he was involved in any violent activity.
“Israeli prison guards and authorities are doing their best to intensify the torments of hunger… the strikers are being subjected to belittling harassment and a variety of punishments... “
Both Mr Adnan and Ms Shalabi were released through last minute deals negotiated at a time when their physical survival seemed in doubt, making death seem imminent. Israel apparently did not then want to risk agitating Palestinians by such martyrdom. At the same time, Israel, as usual, did not want to seem to be retreating under pressure, or draw into question its reliance on administrative detention and imprisonment. Israel has refused, until the present, to examine the grievances that gave rise to these hunger strikes.
In Hana Shalabi’s case, her release was coupled with a punitive deportation order, which cruelly confines her to Gaza for the next three years, away from her family and the familiar surroundings of her home village of Burqin near Jenin in the West Bank. There are some indications that Ms Shalabi was not fully informed about the deportation feature of her release, and was manipulated by prison authorities and the lawyer representing her interests. It may now be with the continuation of the hunger strikes, and their rapid expansion, that Israel has altered its calculations – thinking that deaths among strikers would lead those still alive to abandon their hunger strike. It is difficult to assess the direction of the Israeli response at this stage.
There are reports that some of the current hunger strikers have been offered similar conditional releases, but have so far steadfastly refused to resume eating if it means deportation or exile. A fierce struggle of wills between the strikers and the prison authorities is underway, between those with the advantages of hard power domination and those relying on the soft power resources of societal solidarity and moral and spiritual courage. As the strikers repeatedly affirm, their acts are not meant for their own release alone, but are on behalf of all prisoners, and beyond even them, in support of the wider Palestinian struggle for dignity, self-determination and freedom from oppression.
The torment of these striking prisoners is not only a consequence of their refusal to accept food until certain conditions are met. Israeli prison guards and authorities are doing their best to intensify the torments of hunger. There are numerous reports that the strikers are being subjected to belittling harassment and a variety of punishments, including constant taunting, solitary confinement, the confiscation of personal belongings, denial of family visits, disallowance of examination by humanitarian NGOs and hardhearted refusals to transfer medically threatened strikers to civilian hospitals – where they could receive the kinds of medical treatment their critical conditions urgently require.
As of April 2012, there were 322 Palestinians being held in ‘administrative detention’, according to the Addameer NGO [GALLO/GETTY]
There are also broader issues at stake. When, in the past, Palestinians resorted to violent forms of resistance they were branded by the West as “terrorists”, their deeds were widely covered by dwelling upon their sensationalist aspects, but when Palestinians resort to nonviolent forms of resistance, whether hunger strikes or BDS or an intifada, their actions fall mainly on deaf ears and wooden eyes. Worse, there is a concerted propaganda spin to depict a particular tactic of nonviolent resistance as somehow illegitimate, either as a cheap trick to gain sympathy or as a dirty trick to subvert the state of Israel by drawing its legitimacy into question.
All the while, Israel’s annexationist plans move ahead, with settlements expanding, and now recently, with more than 100 settler outposts, formerly illegal even under Israeli law, in the process of being retroactively legalised. Such moves signal once and for all that the Netanyahu leadership exhibits not one iota of good faith when it continues to claim that it seeks to negotiate a conflict ending peace treaty with the Palestinians. It is a pity that the Palestinian Authority has not yet had the diplomatic composure to call it quits when it comes to heeding the hollow calls of the Quartet to resume direct talks with Israel. It is long past time to crumble this long bridge to nowhere.
That rock star of liberal pontificators, Thomas Friedman, has for years been preaching nonviolence to the Palestinians, implying that Israel – as a democratic country with a strong moral sensitivity – would surely yield in the face of such a principled challenge. Yet when something as remarkable as this massive expression of a Palestinian commitment to nonviolent resistance in the form of this open-ended hunger strike, dubbed “the war of empty stomachs”, takes place, Friedman – along with his liberal brothers – is stony silent. The news sections of the New York Times were also unable to find even an inch of space to report on these dramatic protests, weeks after Khader Adnan and Hana Shalabi had ended their hunger strikes. Not until the 65th day of the ongoing strikes of Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahla, along with the 1,500 or so Palestinian prisoners who commenced their refusal of food around April 17, did the Times report on them.
“[A hunger strike] is both scary and physically taxing even for a day or so, and to maintain the discipline and strength of will to carry on such a strike for weeks at a time requires a rare combination of courage and resolve.“
Robert Malley, another influential liberal voice who had been a Middle East advisor to President Bill Clinton, while more constrained in offering advice to Palestinians than Friedman, suggests that any sustained display of Palestinian nonviolence, if met with Israeli violence, would be an embarrassment for Washington. Malley insists that if the Palestinians were to take to the streets in the spirit of Tahrir Square, and Israelis responded violently, as the Netanyahu government could be expected to do, it “would put the United States in an … acute dilemma about how to react to Israel’s reaction”.
The dilemma depicted by Malley derives from Obama encouragement of the democratic aspirations of a people who he has repeatedly said deserve their own state on the one side, and the unconditional alignment with Israel on the other. Only a confirmed liberal would call this a genuine dilemma, as any informed and objective observer would know, that the US government would readily accept, as it has repeatedly done in the past, an Israeli claim that force was needed to maintain public order, and even more assuredly during a heated presidential campaign. In this manner, Palestinian nonviolence would be once more disregarded, and the super-alliance of these two partners in crime once more reaffirmed.
Self-sacrifice and the Palestinian search for peace
Let there be no mistake about the moral and spiritual background of the challenge being mounted by these Palestinians. Undertaking an open ended hunger strike is an inherently brave act that is fraught with risks and uncertainties, and is only undertaken in situations of extreme frustration or severe abuse. Of course, others have engaged in hunger strikes in the past to protest prison abuse, including the 2011 strikes in California prisons that lead to the death of Christian Alexander Chavez, a 27-year-old prisoner serving a life sentence for a murder he may never have committed. A prison hunger strike is never an act undertaken lightly or as a stunt.
For anyone who has attempted to express protest in this manner, and I have for short periods as a free citizen during my decade of opposition to the Vietnam War, it is both scary and physically taxing even for a day or so, and to maintain the discipline and strength of will to carry on such a strike for weeks at a time requires a rare combination of courage and resolve. Very few individuals have the psychological makeup needed to adopt such an extreme tactic of self-sacrifice and witness, especially when the ordeal is aggravated by punishments and tauntings by prison officials.
For a hunger strike to be done on this current scale of collective action underscores the horrible ordeal of the Palestinians that has been all but erased from the political consciousness of the West in the hot aftermath of the Arab Spring. It also suggests that a new Palestinian uprising may be in the offing, which would present Washington with the dilemma Malley worries about. The world has long refused to take notice of Palestinian one-sided efforts over the years to reach a peaceful outcome of their conflict with Israel.
It is helpful to keep reminding ourselves that, in 1988, the PLO officially accepted Israel within its 1967 borders, a huge territorial concession, leaving the Palestinians with only 22 per cent of historical Palestine on which to establish an independent and sovereign state. In recent years, the main tactics of Palestinian opposition to the occupation, including on the part of Hamas, has been largely to turn away from violence, adhering to a diplomacy and practice that looked toward long-term peaceful coexistence between two peoples. Israel has refused to take note of either development, and has instead continuously thrown sand in Palestinian eyes.
The official Israeli response to Palestinian moves toward political restraint and away from violence has been to embark upon a program of feverish settlement expansion, extensive targeted killing, reliance on excessive retaliatory violence as well as an various forms of intensifying oppressiveness that gave rise to these hunger strikes. One expression of this oppressiveness is the 50 per cent increase in the number of Palestinians held under administrative detention during the past year, along with an officially mandated worsening of conditions throughout its prison system.
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