Palestinian prisoners between resistance, sensationalism and oblivion

Palestinian prisoners between resistance, sensationalism and oblivion
5 min read
01 Nov, 2016
Comment: Hunger striking has formed part of the Palestinian approach to mainstream activism, but unbalanced media coverage undermines the essence of the collective struggle, writes Ramona Wadi
Palestinian protesters hold posters of prisoners who have staged hunger strikes in Israeli jail [Getty]

Last week, a new article in Ma'an drew attention to Samer Issawi's renewed hunger strike efforts, this time in solidarity with female Palestinian prisoners.

Issawi's demands are simple - after the mistreatment of women prisoners in Damon detention centre, he seeks their transfer to a more accessible detention facility, with access to medical treatment and visits by international NGO Doctors Without Borders.

Issawi was temporarily catapulted to international prominence after embarking upon a long hunger strike in protest against administrative detention, and has, on other occasions, resorted to hunger strikes in solidarity with other Palestinian political prisoners.

In 2015 for example, he sought the cessation of human rights violations, such as in the case of Mohammed Allan. This example however, also serves to highlight the stark difference in the way the cases have been reported. Allan's case was widely reported, but the women incarcerated at Damon are only mentioned as an unidentified collective.

This news snippet should be analysed within various contexts. Primarily, solidarity with Palestinian prisoners is multifaceted, which is unfortunately leading to inconsistencies when it comes to articulating resistance within incarceration.

As a result, the collective Palestinian struggle is being fragmented, not only due to the restrictions faced by Palestinians as a result of internationally-supported Israeli colonial violence, but also due to stark differences between Palestinian solidarity with Palestinian prisoners and international solidarity with Palestinian prisoners.  

This may result in a complex oblivion that feeds upon the divide between newsworthy episodes and the less prominent cases, creating a fake hierarchy that will add to the plight of Palestinian victims.

Dissecting solidarity

The cases of hunger striking Palestinian prisoners deemed worthy of mention in the media have all had common points of interest, whether related to duration of hunger strike as in the case of Issawi, or stiffling freedom of expression as in the case of Palestinian journalists Omar Nazzal and Mohammed al-Qeq.

Sensationalism has created temporary heroes out of Palestinians whose hunger strike became something akin to a celebrity action, rather than a specific form of protest against Israeli colonial violence.

It is gruesome to think that the only reason Issawi attracted international attention was the need for activism to seek a temporary icon

Hunger strikes are an act of necessity and encompass different grievances, including international complicity with Israel in maintaining the settler colonial state, as well as a refusal to amend the clause that renders administrative detention permissible in extreme circumstances.

As a result, solidarity is severely fractured. Building up global outrage due to a prolonged hunger strike constitutes an easier task than igniting awareness regarding Israel's repressive system. 

Consequently, importance is attached do individual names, despite all Palestinian prisoners experiencing - to varying degrees - the same history and memory that eclipse the individual struggle.

Activist solidarity has yet to catch up with this simple truth. The hunger striker's visibility is dependent upon personal physical resilience. However, stopping at this detracts from the collective struggle against the entire system which has repressed Palestinians.

Little outrage was expressed when Issawi was rearrested in 2014, indicating a disturbing trend when it comes to activism and visibility.

It is gruesome to think that the only reason Issawi attracted international attention was the need for activism to seek a temporary icon rather than campaign for human rights.

Palestinian resistance is encountering both simplification and restriction in this regard. The mainstream approach to activism clearly undermines the essence of collective struggle and discards its chosen emblem once a temporary victory can be disseminated as an achievement. The truth, however, is far from accessible media stories.

Dangerous differentiation

By cloistering Palestinian prisoners within specific categories, activism is committing a serious disservice, particularly in the divide between international activism for Palestine and Palestinian activism within Palestine.

A lack of awareness regarding the Palestinian collective struggle may be one reason; urgency due to shifting perceptions and the inability to consciously create a long term struggle may be another.

The temporary attention given to specific Palestinian prisoners is not aiding the collective struggle

Either way, the temporary attention given to specific Palestinian prisoners is not aiding the collective struggle, particularly when it comes to articulating the rights of other Palestinian prisoners who, for many different reasons, do not embark upon hunger strikes and are therefore lost to oblivion.

Issawi's statement and its reporting in the media highlight this discrepancy. For Issawi, hunger striking signifies both an individual and a collective effort. The iconic figure of 2013 has ruptured the imposed, blinkered perceptions.

Activism and the media, having no longer any use for the image of the triumphant hunger striker, have refrained from commenting on the significance of Issawi's solidarity, which makes the issue of oblivion even more worthy of mention and awareness.

It seems as if the media has, yet again, got its priorities wrong. It is not the women whose rights are being trampled upon in Israeli jails that rendered such information accessible. Rather, it is the brief recapitulation of a Palestinian elevated to a heroic status that has made these female prisoners worthy of mention.

It stands to reason that if Issawi had not decided to embark upon a solidarity hunger strike, these women, already anonymous, would have been sentenced to multiple forms of oblivion by different entities of the spectrum: Israel and selective activism.

Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger specialising in the struggle for memory in Chile and Palestine, colonial violence and the manipulation of international law.

Follow her on Twitter: @walzerscent

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