Thursday, January 28, 2021

A history of Palestinian mass hunger strikes

By Ayesha Khan - June 12, 2017
Section: [Main News] [Features] [Behind Bars]
Tags: [prisoners] [Hunger Strike]

Palestinian political prisoners have historically used hunger strikes as a leverage tactic to have their demands for basic human rights met. In the past, the non-violent practice has brought about crucial change in Israeli policies pertaining to its militarized incarceration system.

“Hunger strikes have been used in Palestinian history to peacefully protest for better living conditions inside prison, including isolation and solitary confinement policies, medical negligence, family visitation, as well as policies of administrative detention – detention without charge or trial,” Laith Abu Zeyad, International Advocacy Officer at Addameer, told Palestine Monitor.

With about 6,300 Palestinian political prisoners currently in Israeli prisons, the recent forty-day hunger strike by more than 1,000 prisoners, who were protesting prison conditions (air ventilation, more family visits, and phone access among others) came to an end on May 27th with negotiations taking place with Israeli authorities. Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike faced solitary confinement and risked force-feeding as a form of punishment. Many are still struggling to recover from the health consequences of the 40-day strike.

According to Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “[p]risoners everywhere have a right to engage in hunger strikes to protest their living conditions, and they should not be punished as a result. Force-feeding is a practice that human rights experts have found could amount to torture.”

Since 1967, approximately 800,000 Palestinians have been detained under Israeli military orders, out of which 72 have died in Israeli custody due to torture, according to prisoners' rights group Addameer. Despite the United Nations Committee Against Torture’s (CAT) pleas to provide hunger strikers with medical assistance, and condemning force-feeding through nasal tubes, extending sentences, or cancelling family visits as a form of punishment, Israeli authorities have continued their unjust policies, especially that of solitary confinement (isolation).

Definitive Moments For Hunger Strikers

According to the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT), it is Israel’s responsibility to “guarantee that persons deprived of liberty who engage in hunger strikes are never subjected to ill-treatment or punished for engaging in a hunger strike.” With only water and salt to survive off, open-ended hunger strikes after 50 days could result in deadly consequences for the hunger strikers.

The following are hunger strikes that took place in Israeli prisons that show the dual nature of the results for Palestinian hunger strikers’ fate - punishment or negotiation:

  • In 1969, at the Ramle prison, Palestinian political prisoners held a hunger strike for eleven days, protesting the lack of stationery supplies and poor food quality, but their demands were met with solitary confinement.
  • In 1984, at the Juneid Prison, Palestinian political prisoners held a hunger strike for thirteen days, protesting the lack of reading supplies and poor ventilation in the prison. Although, this time, Israeli authorities felt pressured into changing their policies and supplying the prison with TV, change of clothes to the prisoners, and bettering the food quality.
  • In 1992, approximately 7,000 prisoners protested at the suspicion of a negotiation between PLO and Israel after the Labour Party win, resulting in the isolation section to close down at the Ramle Prison, putting an end to strip searches, and allowing more family visits.
  • Multiple prisons in 2014 started a hunger strike to demand an end to administrative detention. It is considered one of the longest hunger strikes, since it lasted 63 days with 290 prisoners participating. Even though the hunger strike came to an end with a deal being struck with Israeli authorities, the practice of administrative detention continues till this day.

A Last Resort

“The Israeli Prison Service (IPS) have internal laws that specifically state that the prisoner on hunger strike could be subjected to punishment through a variety of ways. One of which is through solitary confinement,” Rasha Abbas, a legal researcher at Addameer, told Palestine Monitor. Hence, these retributive actions by the IPS are a breach of the understanding by World Medical Association (WMA) Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikes, which classifies hunger strikes as “often a form of protest by people who lack other ways of making their demands known.”

It is valid to categorize hunger strikes as a last resort, because access to no other means of leverage are available or accessible. For Mahmoud Issa Moussa Dar Issa, 49, who was a manager at the newspaper Voice of the Truth and Freedom in Haifa until his arrest on June 3rd, 1993, participating in the hunger strike meant challenging his solitary confinement. He was placed in confinement for spells of differing length for ten consecutive years, until his participation in the hunger strike of April 2012 resulted in him being transferred with the general population at the Hadarim prison.

In an interview with Raseef22, Abdul Rahman Ashtiyeh, 32, a former prisoner and fellow participant in the hunger strike of 2012, said: “striking is a risk, but this is the only language understood by the occupier that forces them to grant prisoners their rights.

“The prison authority at the time could not comprehend the idea that more than 1,500 prisoners went into a mass hunger strike,” Ashtiyeh continued. “They expected the strike to break soon, but were surprised to find that the strikers were committed.”

Being held in solitary confinement is classified as being subjected to twenty-three hours in a cell (sometimes with another prisoner), with only one hour to engage in a 'solitary walk,’ according to Addameer. Since Issa’s arrest in 1993, he was held in isolation for several months till 1995, and was reprimanded in 1996 for attempting to escape the prison, which resulted in him serving time in isolation for a year and a half, and an additional period of long-term isolation in 2002. Issa is serving a sentence of three life terms and 49 years.

“During the recent hunger strike in April, the lawyers at Addameer were denied access by IPS to speak with the hunger strikers in [solitary] confinement,” Abbas told Palestine Monitor. “So we proceeded to file a complaint against the IPS, because were denied to see the prisoners, and such a policy is in violation of international standards.”

According to Zeyad, “hunger strikes have been used as a last resort in the absence of other adequate means to protest.

'Chains Will Be Broken Before We Are’

The recent hunger strike that ended in May was successful in achieving bi-monthly family visits through twenty hours of negotiations between Fatah’s affiliate, Marwan Barghouti, along with fellow strike leaders, and IPS. On the other hand, one of the participants, Waddah al- Bizreh, was punished for his role in the strike by being transferred to Ramle prison (in Negev desert) from Gilboa prison (in northern Israel). No comments have been made by Israeli authorities regarding hunger strikers’ additional demand to put an to end administrative detention.

In an op-ed published by The New York Post, Barghouti, conveys the historical resilience of the hunger strikers by stating, ”[w]hat is it with the arrogance of the occupier and the oppressor and their backers that makes them deaf to this simple truth: Our chains will be broken before we are, because it is human nature to heed the call for freedom regardless of the cost.”


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