The 25-year-old Palestinian footballer Mahmoud Sarsak ate a piece of chocolate last Monday, ending the longest hunger strike of any Palestinian prisoner in Israeli custody — more than three months long. The previous record-holder, Khader Adnan, ended his strike just four months earlier. What began as an isolated incident in Adnan’s fast has been growing into a wave of effective resistance. Both men concluded their strikes upon the announcement that they had secured their freedom.
Hunger strikes by Palestinians are not new; what may be different in contrast to historical antecedents is that they have been attracting global attention in news reports. It may be thanks to the growing comprehension of civil resistance around the world since last year’s Arab Awakening. Meanwhile, inside the Occupied Territories, the potency of nonviolent struggle is acquiring momentum as a wide range of Palestinian actors — with diverse priorities and preferences — is increasingly turning to strategic nonviolent action to press for resolution of their grievances.
A total of 4,610 political prisoners are in Israeli prisons, according to the jurists’ organization Al Haq, of whom 322 were under administrative detention — a procedure that permits the indefinite incarceration of suspects without charge or trial for six months, renewable more than once. Twenty-four are members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Some 456 prisoners are being held in Gaza, where inmates have not been allowed family visits since 2007.
Khader Adnan began his 66-day hunger strike on December 18, 2011, to protest what he called abusive treatment endured during his arrest a day earlier at his home in the West Bank village of Arrabe, near Jenin. It attracted worldwide media attention. He agreed to end his hunger strike only if Israel would guarantee his freedom by April 17. He also said that the strike was meant to protest the practice of administrative detention as a whole.
Adnan agreed to consume food only after his lawyers reached a deal with the Israeli government on February 21, hours before Israel’s High Court was preparing to order that he be either charged or released. He was freed on April 17, the same day that hundreds more Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails announced their own hunger strike, demanding an end to administrative detention, isolation and other punishing measures against Palestinian prisoners, including the denial of family visits and of access to university education. This coincided with an international day of action dubbed Palestinian Prisoners’ Day. The action was nothing if not coordinated, as a Jerusalem Post headline from that day discloses: “2,300 Hamas, Islamic Jihad, PFLP, DFLP, prisoners return meals, demand end to Israel’s administrative detention.”
As many as 2,000 of the Palestinian prisoners ended their hunger strike on May 14 after Israeli authorities agreed to allow visits from relatives, move detainees out of solitary confinement and limit the practice of administrative detention. In so doing, the strikers signed an agreement with Israeli authorities that settled on improved conditions.
Qadura Fares, the longtime president of the Palestinian Prisoner Society, told reporters that the May 14 agreement was reached by prison leaders acting on behalf of prisoners from all the Palestinian factions. Moreover, representatives of both Fatah and Hamas went to Cairo to involve Egyptian administrators, because some of the striking prisoners were affiliated with factions with which Israel does not have direct contact, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The Palestinian prisoners’ movement is one of the most remarkable groups utilizing civil resistance that I have encountered anywhere in the world. Years ago, I interviewed Fares for my book on the 1987 Intifada. He was elected as president of the Palestinian Prisoner Society in 1985 and is now based in Ramallah, West Bank. (Later, Fares was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council.) Through the Society’s pyramidal apparatus, he has been continually chosen to speak for politically active Palestinians incarcerated in Israeli jails. In 1992, while himself locked up in the Jnaid prison camp near Nablus, he led 15,000 prisoners on a hunger strike across major Israeli prisons, with no visible means of coordination, which ultimately succeeded in achieving some of the prisoners’ demands.
The first mass prison hunger strike in the contemporary period took place in the Israeli city of Ashkelon in 1970. For 15 days, the prisoners sipped water and ingested salt, but ate no food. One prisoner, Abd al-Qadir Abu al-Fahem, died. The second such hunger strike occurred in 1976, lasting for 45 days. The third occurred in summer 1980, persisting for 33 days. Two prisoners died — Rasem Halawah and Ali al-Jaafari. By the 1980s, freed prisoners were forming prisoners’ clubs throughout the West Bank and Gaza, involving former detainees and inmates, while nonviolent actions inside prisons were being reinforced by peaceful demonstrators outside the jails. A fourth hunger strike was organized across Israeli prisons in 1984, three years before the 1987 Intifada. Hunger strikes have often involved whole families. The mother of one prisoner, Umm Ibrahim Shawabkeh, who demonstrated in summer 1984, recalled:
[M]y son was moved to a new prison, Jnaid. The prisoners went on a hunger strike, protesting their living conditions. A lot of women went to demonstrate in support of them. … There were about 150 altogether, and other women joined us during the day. We were Muslims, Christians, and Jews all together. … I went without food for 12 days.
Another fast occurred in March and April 1987, about which Badran Bader Jaber, a veteran of more than 20 such strikes, commented, “All the detainees, all the prisoners, used the hunger strike as a last resort when they reached a breaking point. Hunger strikes were to defend yourself, to defend your rights as a human being.” Hunger strikes are not undertaken lightly, ever, anywhere.
Hunger strikes also required preparation, as Jaber put it:
One had to know the hows, the whats, even the alphabet of the hunger strike: what the person will feel when he begins, … the movement of the stomach, the smell of the mouth, the taste, how we must go to the bathroom, how we must take water, how we must take salt, … how to maintain the strike even if they were placed in isolation or transferred.
In 1968, as I have written before, four years after the PLO formally established itself, Eqbal Ahmad, a Princeton-educated Pakistani political scientist, recommended that Palestinians embark on “highly organized, militant, nonviolent struggle” as superior to armed struggle:
The roads should be clogged with people lying down, offices blocked with hunger strikers. … Large marches should be organized into the West Bank and Gaza. Return home. When old men or women die, they wish to be buried in their ancestral villages. Funeral processions should move across the frontiers into Israel. The symbols of exodus must be reversed. A liberation movement seeks to expose the basic contradictions of the adversarial society.
Ahmad, who had lectured at Pakistan’s military academy, met with PLO figures during the 1970s. In 1974 in Beirut, he proposed to Yasir Arafat and the PLO that they conduct a variation of Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March, with thousands of Palestinian refugees afoot, striding from refugee camps in Amman to the Allenby Bridge. The PLO rejected the idea — though it is doubtful whether such a proposal would have been well-implemented in any case, given that the PLO’s political strategy was long thwarted by its military operations.
Israel, for its part, often falls short in redressing grievances and injustices, even when confronted by extraordinarily disciplined strategic nonviolent action. Within two weeks after the agreement grasped by Palestinian hunger strikers in Israeli prisons this past May, for instance, Israel had already started to renege on the bargain. Days after publicizing the end of the strike, administrative detention orders were renewed for 30 prisoners, according to Issa Qaraqa, a minister for Palestinian prisoners’ affairs. Accusing Israel of going back on its promises, prisoners have begun to threaten the prospects of a renewed hunger strike.
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