Palestinian hunger strikers: The frontline of an imprisoned nation

Palestinian hunger strikers: The frontline of an imprisoned nation
Comment: Marwan Barghouti has motivated thousands of prisoners to join him on hunger strike, and inspired a new wave of solidarity across Palestinian society, writes Isabelle Avran.
8 min read
15 May, 2017
Protesters showing support for Barghouti and other Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike [AFP]

In response to Marwan Barghouti's call, on Monday 17 April, close to 1,500 Palestinian political prisoners started a hunger strike called "Freedom and Dignity" to defend their most basic rights.

The Israeli government, however, modelled its reaction on former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's decision to let Northern Irish protester Bobby Sands and his companions die in their cells in 1981, Palestinian society as a whole has demonstrated its solidarity with the captives.

Over 6,500 Palestinian prisoners including more than 300 children are currently behind bars. They have repeatedly gone on hunger strikes in recent years, either individually or in groups to protest against their poor living conditions. In 2012 they managed to reach a deal that put an end to isolation measures and lifted the bans on visits for families from Gaza.

The current protest that started on Monday 17 April - coinciding with Palestinian Prisoners Day - came in response to calls from political activist Marwan Barghouti who has been in jail since 2002. Thanks to its reach and the backing it has found among Palestinians, it may finally spark a new collective action for rights and freedom among the Palestinian people, despite the hard line towed by the occupiers, Israeli.

Marwan Barghouti's call

Marwan Barghouti has been engaged in the resistance movement since his adolescence. He is a Fatah leader, he led the Second Intifada and has repeatedly been the target of assassination attempts.

He was eventually captured by Israeli troops in 2002 and in 2004 he was sentenced to several life sentences by an Israeli tribunal whose legitimacy he has always refused to recognise on the grounds that he is a Palestinian citizen and parliamentarian.

He says he is innocent of the terrorist acts he's been accused of and repeated that he is a "man of peace" who will continue to support "a peace agreement with Israel", managing to turn his case into the trial of the whole occupation.

This is a goal he knows can only be achieved if the negotiations are carried out based on the unity of resistance

In a message addressed to Parliamentarians across the world, he wrote that "a hunger strike is a legitimate and non-violent action prisoners have at their disposal to protest against violations of their fundamental human rights as guaranteed by international law(…)

"We have decided to undertake this strike after months spent trying to make our legitimate claims heard. Our demands concern arbitrary mass arrests, use of torture and ill treatments, punitive measures against prisoners, deliberate medical negligence, visitation rights of family, friends and loved ones as well as education. These are the most basic human rights. 

  Read more: Israeli settlers taunt Palestinian hunger-strikers with BBQ

"I was the first MP arrested in 2002 and since then Israel has arrested 70 MPs, or more than half of the legislative chamber - the Palestinian Parliament - of which 13 are still in detention. This is an insult to MPs worldwide, to democracy and to human rights around the world. It is an insult to freedom and justice and needs to be addressed. The treatment of Palestinian MPs is a reflection of the treatment inflicted on the people they represent."

Barghouti has once again managed to unite prisoners across the political spectrum with this hunger strike. He's always been a ferocious supporter of national identity and an advocate of a peace treaty with Israel based on international law and the establishment of national rights for the Palestinian people. This is a goal he knows can only be achieved if the negotiations are carried out based on the unity of resistance.

Violations of international conventions

Israeli occupation forces refuse to enforce the rules of the Geneva Convention to occupied Palestine regarding population displacement, land confiscation, settlements on occupied territories and detainees' rights. This would forbid detention on Israeli land and the use of torture, but Tel Aviv refuses to consider them as war prisoners.

And yet, such actions are commonplace, even against children. The organisation Defence for Children International (DCI) has collected the testimonies of 61 children from the West Bank who were detained by Israeli forces and tried by military tribunals in 2016. Among them, 25 were held in isolation cells for interrogations that lasted an average of 16 days, and up to 29 days for one of them.

The aim is to apply psychological pressure on the children and make them more vulnerable by refusing them access to legal counsel

According to DCI Palestine, the aim is to put psychological pressure on the children and make them more vulnerable by refusing them access to legal counsel.

In a report dating from last year, DCI had already denounced the physical abuse of the children
"who are pushed, slapped, kicked and hit with a helmet or a gun. On arrest almost all children (97.7 percent) were handcuffed, and most of them (88.3 percent) were blindfolded for long periods.

The rights of Palestinian children are seriously and systematically violated

"Access to necessities such as water, food and toilets during arrest, transportation and interrogation is denied in most cases. The rights of Palestinian children are seriously and systematically violated through the frequent and common use of force, threats, physical and moral violence as well as the practice of not explaining their rights to the children, conducting interrogations in the absence of a lawyer or a family member, and presenting documents in Hebrew which most children do not understand."

By day and by night, children are the frequent targets of the troops, who aim to spread fear and pressure their families.

Dozens of prisoners have died as a result of ill-treatment and torture over the last few years, and Palestinian organisations that campaign for prisoners' defence estimate between 1,700 and 1,800 sick prisoners have no access to adequate treatment.

It is estimated that 1,700 to 1,800 sick prisoners have no access to adequate treatment

According to the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), 180 prisoners suffer from serious illnesses, and 26 have cancer. The occupying army also targets journalists, lawyers, MPs, students and teachers, since education has been a way for Palestinians to show resistance. 

Around 750 people have been arrested on administrative detention orders, locked up without being charged or tried for four to six-month renewable periods.

The prisoners' demands are in line with the rights granted by the Fourth Geneva Convention: Visitation rights from relatives, no medical negligence, no isolation or administrative detention, the right study and take school and university exams, and no arbitrary measures against women

Margaret Thatcher as a model

Repression has been the only response from the Israeli government. According to PCHR, on the second day of the strike, several prisoners were transferred, and some were put in isolation, among whom Marwan Barghouti, whose health has been deteriorating, and Karim Younis, who was sentenced  to life imprisonment by an Israeli military court in 1983 for the murder of an Israeli soldier.

Their families have been denied visitation, and Friday prayers and laundry are forbidden. The only water they have access to is toilet water. Only the International Red Cross Committee (Comite International de la Croix-Rouge - CICR) has been allowed to see the Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons. They've stated that they were able to visit some of the strikers on the tenth day of the strike.

Their families have been denied visitation, and Friday prayers and laundry are forbidden. The only water they have access to is toilet water

These prisoners have been the victims of multiple acts of provocation. Supporters of Naftali Bennet, the leader of the far right party Jewish Home, organised a large barbecue parties outside the Ofer prison. This is not surprising. Just as the failed negotiations between Israel and Palestine had started in 2013, Bennett, who was then Economy Minister, said "when you catch a terrorist, you simply must kill him (…) I've killed a lot of Arabs in my life. There's nothing wrong with that." He welcomed Donald Trump's election victory, stating that "The era of the Palestinian state is over."

Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the far-right party Israel Beytenou and current foreign affairs and defence minister called for the adoption of Margaret Thatcher's stance on hunger strikers, alluding to the deaths of Bobby Sands and nine of his Northern Irish companions in 1981 during a hunger strike for their rights in prison.

Yisrael Katz, the Israeli Transport Minister (Likud) believes Marwan Barghouti should have been executed. The government has refused all negotiation and maintains it won't back down. For now.

An entire population standing together 

Solidarity with the hunger strikers has spread across all of occupied Palestine. First, because as many as 850,000 Palestinians have been incarcerated in Israeli jails over the last fifty years, meaning that every family feels concerned.

Secondly, because their detention has become the symbol of the imprisonment of the whole population, who are besieged along the Gaza strip and victims of the military occupation and colonial violence between walls in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

An entire population has heard his call

Daily protests and gatherings have multiplied despite severe repression by the army. According to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, eight Palestinians were injured on Friday 28 April. Moreover, this new wave of popular support with the political captives is the consequence of the dead end the population has been led to.

Capitalising on Donald Trump's election, the Israeli government has stepped up its frantic settlements policy. Far right government officials have called for the annexation of large chunks of colonies, which would destroy all hope of an independent Palestinian state. How long can the UN remain silent? In an op-ed for The New York Times dated 16 April, Marwan Barghouti wrote;

"Decades of experience have proved that Israel's inhumane system of colonial and military occupation aims to break the spirit of prisoners and the nation to which they belong, by inflicting suffering on their bodies, separating them from their families and communities, using humiliating measures to compel subjugation. In spite of such treatment, we will not surrender to it."

An entire population has heard his call.

Isabelle Avran is a French journalist and the author of two books on Palestine-Israel.

This is an edited translation, originally published in French by our partners at OrientXXI.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.