Starving for Recognition: The plight of Palestinian prisoners
December 16, 2012
Early this year, the long-ignored population of Palestinians warehoused behind Israeli bars broke onto the global stage with the courageous hunger strike of Khader Adnan, who went without food for 66 days to protest his “administrative detention” - a limbo in which he had been held without charge or trial. His protest captured the attention of media around the world and inspired a rash of other strikes, culminating in a mass action by an estimated 2,000 other Palestinian political prisoners.
The dramatic tactics appeared to work: Adnan and the others were released, and the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association reported that the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) agreed “there would be no new administrative detention orders or renewals” (albeit with several caveats).
However, today, more than four months later, the IPS is quietly breaking its promises, and at least five prisoners are once again on hunger strike. Two of them - Ayman Sharawna and Samer al-Issawi - had been released in October 2011 as part of the agreement Israel signed in exchange for the freedom of its captured soldier, Gilad Shalit. They were re-arrested several months later, without any new charges or evidence, and have been on at least a partial strike since July and August, respectively. As this article went to press, their health was seriously deteriorating, with frequent loss of consciousness and muscle control, and calls by Physicians for Human Rights in Israel to allow visits by independent doctors have been ignored.
Another of the hunger strikers, Oday Keilani, has gone without food for more than 40 days, after his own administrative detention - under which he has been held since April 2011 - was extended for another four months, despite the IPS’ promises.
Even those who have merely rallied in support of the prisoners are now being targeted. In October, Ayman Nasser, a researcher with Addameer, was arrested in part for his active participation in solidarity demonstrations. To date, Nasser remains in Israeli detention. At 3 a.m. on Dec. 12, the offices of Addameer and several other Palestinian NGOs were ransacked, and their computers, files and video equipment stolen. Posters of prisoners and hunger strikers were ripped from the walls and strewn around the office.
You wouldn’t know any of this was going on, however, from the “mainstream” Western media. Despite the earlier rush of coverage, the hunger strikers today are starving in virtual silence.
Khaled Waleed, operations coordinator for the UFree Network, which advocates in the European Union for Palestinian political prisoners, believes media coverage isn’t typically what forces Israel to act. However, he is quick to add that it is an important influence on governments that can apply pressure. And Mahmoud Sarsak, the popular Palestinian soccer player who went on hunger strike for 96 days before he was finally released, is convinced that grassroots pressure was critical to his eventual freedom.
"People seem to have lost interest in the hunger strikes now," laments Waleed, who adds that his organization focuses more on broad issues, like Israel’s growing pattern of "re-arrests."
"We need a vision that unites everyone, and right now, it’s not clear where that will come from," he said.
Experts, as well as former and current political prisoners, identify a variety of forces working against the sustained attention needed to bring about real and lasting change in the plight of Palestinian political prisoners: marginalization by the “Arab Spring,” global economic collapse, the Iranian “threat” and elections in several key countries.
Competing With World Events
As Salam Fayyad, prime minister for the Palestinian Authority (PA), told The New York Times earlier this year, “The biggest challenge we face - apart from occupation - is marginalization. This is a direct consequence of the Arab Spring where people are preoccupied with their own domestic affairs. The United States is in an election year and has economic problems, Europe has its worries. We’re in a corner.”
Although the PA managed to gain enough support to win observer status in the United Nations last month, the international “bandwidth” is just not sufficient to accommodate a host of other issues - especially those that require sustained attention - without a very focused, sustained campaign.
Even in the Palestinian Territories, where “solidarity tents” in support of the hunger strikers were constant and vocal for Khader Adnan and the others, there is only intermittent activity this time around. “I think people are just exhausted with the whole situation,” admits Malaka Mohammed, a young activist in Gaza who has been at the forefront of the protest movement there, and helped organize a solidarity rally on Dec. 13. “It’s hard to stay active on everything, especially after Israel’s latest attack on Gaza.”
Salem Hassan Khalil Abu Shab was imprisoned by Israel three times - the last for more than 18 years - and now is back home in Gaza, struggling to fit back into a family that had become independent without him. Twice, he participated in hunger strikes, which he recalls as “the worst thing to have to do, but the only thing we can do to fight back and keep our dignity.” Shab adds, however, that to be successful, strikes need “people on the outside keeping up the pressure.” When other, competing events occur, he acknowledged - like the UN bid and the Israeli attack - the strikes lose their impact. Israel, he believes, is aware of that.