Palestinian prisoners: the battle of empty stomachs

As of December 2012, there were over 4,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli custody. The year ended in frustration for many prisoners as interest in their plight has waned, both in the international media and in Palestinian society.

Palestinians protest for the release of Samer Issawi. Demotix/Mahmoud Illean. All rights reserved.Palestinians protest for the release of Samer Issawi. Demotix/Mahmoud Illean. All rights reserved.

No food has passed Samer Issawi’s lips for over 170 days. He is one of several Palestinian prisoners currently engaged in a protracted hunger strike against their detention without charge in Israeli custody. Their plight is being ignored by the mainstream international media.

The hunger strikers are a part of the on-going crisis of mass incarceration. According to prisoner rights association Addameer, there were 4,656 Palestinians held in Israeli custody as of December 1, 2012. It has been estimated that around one-fifth of the Palestinian population in the occupied territories has been imprisoned by Israel at some point since 1967.

Early in 2012, hunger strikers Khader Adnan and Hana Shalabi had managed to gain some exposure in the mainstream international media, such as the BBC, New York Times and the Guardian. Their hunger strikes had a galvanizing effect on Palestinian activists and wider society, with hundreds protesting in solidarity.

Subsequent hunger strikers have passed significant individual milestones. Ayman Shawarna suspended his hunger strike after 180 consecutive days without food. Samer Al-Barq has been on a total of three hunger strikes in 2012, the longest of which lasted 123 days. At the time of writing Jafar Azzidine, Tarek Qa’adan and Yousef Yassin have spent more than 50 days on hunger strike.

All are protesting against being held in ‘administrative detention’ - a form of internment whereby prisoners are held without trial on the basis of secret information (withheld from the prisoner and their lawyers) for terms of six months, which can be renewed indefinitely.

Yet the hunger strikers following Adnan and Shalabi have failed to receive significant media attention and the reaction in the Palestinian streets has become increasingly muted.

According to Pam Bailey, the coverage of the recent hunger strikers has waned because they have to compete for attention with other pertinent issues and have become too predictable. Coverage of Adnan peaked at the moment when it seemed likely he might be about to die but, although the subsequent hunger strikers have suffered from crippling health problems, they have mostly been taking sugar, minerals and vitamins in their water, providing just enough sustenance to survive for long periods.

“Reporters have pretty much decided that each hunger strike is going to go the same way” said Pam Bailey in a talk given in Gaza in December, “They’re not going to die, they’re not going to go that far, they are willing to give up their strike for a couple of months early release and Israel is not giving anything significant.”

The individual hunger strikes may have become predictable to ordinary Palestinians too. Osama Alwahaidi, a member of Gaza-based Hussam Prisoners Association, is frustrated with the lack of action from Palestinian society regarding the plight of the recent hunger strikers. Alwahaidi told me that, after Adnan and Shalabi, the Palestinian community is “exhausted…and even a bit bored.”

Many Palestinians are consumed by the simple act of living under the hostile environment of occupation. The daily grind of making a living, trying to get an education or dealing with attacks from settlers often takes precedence over political action for prisoners. In a sense, every Palestinian in the occupied territories is a prisoner; it’s just a question of how close the walls are.

The demands of the hunger strikers

Covering individuals such as Adnan and Shalabi re-asserts subjectivity, as each prisoner becomes an individual with aspirations, emotions, families, talents and, crucially, a political consciousness.

However, some have also highlighted the limitations of individual hunger strikes. Maya Rosenfeld, an Israeli academic and expert on the Palestinian prisoners’ movement told me that she doubted “whether the hunger strikes are an indication of the strength of the prisoners' movement. In fact I think that the opposite is true.”

“Basically these hunger strikes remained individual protest acts, albeit very powerful” Rosenfeld told me, “They were not organized by the prisoners' movement and not called upon by the prisoners' leaders.”

Rosenfeld told me that although there were weeks during which hundreds and possibly thousands were on hunger strike, the actions did not come close to the collective action that characterized prisoners' hunger strikes in the past. “The latter were acts of unity and that's where their strength derived from” she said, “whereas the current hunger strikes are more of a demonstration of the highest level of personal commitment and sacrifice.”

Atallah Abu Sebah, the minister for Detainees and Ex-Detainee Affairs in Gaza, is quick to defend individual hunger strikes. “Not all prisoners are sick and not all prisoners are in solitary confinement and not all of them are in administrative detention” he told me, “so each prisoner has his own case and own demands – that’s why he is going on an individual hunger strike.”

Abu Sebah argues that collective hunger strikes take a long time to organise because of the process of negotiation with the Israeli authorities and he conceded that Israel had made it harder for the prisoners’ movement to organise, through geographically isolating prisoners and restricting their capacity to communicate.

In April 2012 it was estimated that more than 2000 Palestinian prisoners went on the longest mass hunger strike ever staged in Israeli prison, lasting 28 days. The hunger strikers have achieved some important concessions - extending visiting rights for families of prisoners, ending solitary confinement and improving general conditions – although gains are often later revoked.

The number of administrative detainees has fallen from 310 in January 2012 to 178 in December 2012, although the overall number of Palestinian prisoners has barely changed over the year.

However, some argue that Israel is little-troubled by the nature of the demands of hunger strikers (whether individual or collective) because they are focused on material gains, rather than larger political demands such as gaining recognition as prisoners of war or demanding an end to all administrative detention.

Hussam Association’s Osama Alwuhaidi, told me that “this is an Israeli trick - keeping us busy challenging the material conditions in jail.” Alwuhaidi claims it is necessary to fight in two ways – against the harsh conditions in prison but also for wider political rights.

The Detainees’ minister Abu Sebah was more concerned with extolling the courageousness of the hunger strikers than questioning their tactics but he thought that political demands might be too ambitious. He said that a huge amount of strength is required just to win even small material demands and that hard-won gains are usually taken back again.

Revitalising the prisoners’ movement

According to Maya Rosenfeld, writing in ‘Threat’, the Palestinian prisoners’ movement inside Israeli jails was at its most powerful in the mid to late 1980s, developing a symbiotic relationship with Palestinian resistance outside jail.

Rosenfeld writes that the cross-factional organization and education that Palestinian political prisoners set up in inside Israeli prisons was “pivotal to the formation of key structures that led and sustained the popular struggle against the Israeli occupation, and where, at the same time, the mass imprisonment of grassroots activists eventually led to the reinforcement of the prisoners’ organization.”

Rosenfeld argues that the current prisoner movement has failed to reach the significance of these years, largely due to the lack of a unified political leadership and the inexperience of a generation of prisoners who lack a background in political activism. Israel has been successful at isolating prisoners and fragmenting political organisation in prison.

Despite the courageous actions of the hunger strikers, it seems that Israel is largely comfortable in dealing with the prisoner movement at the moment and that the international media is no longer interested in their plight. If the movement can find a way to become better organised in order to pose collective political demands, perhaps they can capture the world’s attention and can truly threaten the occupation.

About the author

Patrick Keddie is a British freelance journalist. He blogs here.