The Massive Palestinian Hunger Strike: Traveling below the Western Radar
Richard Falk, blog, richardfalk.wordpress.com
Can anyone doubt that if there were more than 1300 hunger strikers in any country in the world other than Palestine, the media in the West would be obsessed with the story? It would be featured day after day, and reported on from all angles, including the severe medical risks associated with such a lengthy refusal to take food. At this time two Palestinians who were the first to start this current wave of resistance, Thaer Halaheh and Bilal Diab, entering their 64th day without food, are reported by the prisoner protection association, Addameer, and the NGO, Physician for Human Rights-Israel, to be in critical condition with their lives hanging in the balance. Despite this dramatic state of affairs there is scant attention in Europe, and literally none in North America.
In contrast, consider the attention that the Western media has devoted to a lone blind Chinese human rights lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, who managed to escape from house arrest in Beijing a few days ago and find a safe haven at the U.S. Embassy. This is an important international incident, to be sure, but is it truly so much more significant than the Palestinian story as to explain the total neglect of the extraordinary exploits of these thousands of Palestinians who are sacrificing their bodies, quite possibly their lives, to nonviolently protest severe mistreatment in the Israeli prison system.? Except among their countrymen, and to some extent the region, these many thousand Palestinian prisoners have been languishing within an opaque black box ever since 1967, are denied protection, exist without rights, and cope as best they can without even the acknowledgement of their plight.
There is another comparison to be made. Recall the outpouring of concern and sympathy throughout the West for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was captured on the Gaza border and held captive by Palestinians for five years. A powerful global campaign for his release on humanitarian ground was organized, and received constant reinforcement in the media. World leaders pleaded for his release, and Israeli commanding officers even told IDF fighting forces during the massive attacks on Gaza at the end of 2008 that killed more than 1450 Palestinians that their real mission was to free Shalit or at least hold accountable the entire civilian population of Gaza. When Shalit finally released in a prisoner exchange a few months ago there was a brief celebration that abruptly ended when, much to the disappointment of the Israeli establishment, Shalit reported good treatment during captivity. Shalit’s father went further, saying if he was a Palestinian he would have tried to capture Israeli soldiers. Not surprisingly, Shalit, instead of being revered as an Israeli hero, has quietly disappeared from public view.
This current wave of hunger strikes started on April 17th, Palestinian Prisoners’ Day, and was directly inspired by the recently completed long and heroic hunger strikes of Khader Adnan (66 days) and Hana Shalabi (43 days) both of whom protested against the combination of administrative detention and abusive arrest and interrogation procedures. It should be understood that administrative detention is validated by secret evidence and allows Israel to imprison Palestinians for six months at a time without bringing any criminal charges, with terms renewable as they expire. Hana Shalabi was among those released in the prisoner exchange, but then barely recovering from her prior detention period, was rearrested in a night arrest raid, and sentenced once again to a term of confinement for four months. Or consider the experience of Thaer Halahla, eight times subject to administrative detention for a total of six and a half years.
Both Mr. Adnan and Ms. Shalabi were released by deals negotiated at a time when their physical survival seemed in doubt, making death seem imminent. Israel apparently did not want to risk a third intifada resulting as a reaction to such martyrdom. At the same time Israel, as usual, did not want to seem to be retreating, or draw into question its reliance on administrative detention and imprisonment. Israel has refused, until the present, to examine the grievances that gave rise to these hunger strikes. In Hana Shalabi’s case her release was coupled with a punitive deportation order, which cruelly confines her to Gaza for the next three years, away from her family and the familiar surroundings of her home village of Burqin near Jenin in the West Bank. There are some indications that Ms. Shalabi was not fully informed about the deportation feature of her release, and was manipulated by prison authorities and the lawyer representing her interests. The current hunger strikers have been offered similar conditional releases, but have so far steadfastly refused to resume eating if it led to deportation or exile. At this time it is unclear how Israel will respond. There is a fierce struggle of wills between the strikers and the prison authorities, between those with hard power of domination and those with the soft power of moral and spiritual courage. The torment of these striking prisoners is not only a consequence of their refusal to accept food until certain conditions are met. Israeli prison guards and authorities are intensifying the torments of hunger. There are numerous reports that the strikers are being subjected to belittling harassment and a variety of punishments, including solitary confinement, confiscation of personal belongings, denial of family visits, denial of examination by humanitarian NGOs, and a hardhearted refusals to transfer to medically threatened strikers to civilian hospitals where they could receive the kinds of medical treatment their critical conditions require.
The Israeli response to the hunger strikes is shocking, but hardly surprising, within the wider setting of the occupation. Instead of heeding the moral appeal implicit in such extreme forms of resistance, there are widespread reliable reports of punitive responses by Israeli prison authorities. Hunger strikers have been placed in solitary confinement, held in shackles despite their weakened conditions, denied family visits, had personal belongings confiscated, were subjected to harassing comments by guards intended to demoralize. Israeli media has generally taken a cynical attitude toward the strikes, suggesting that these hunger strikers are publicity seeking, aiming to receive ‘a get out of jail free’ card, and deserve no empathy even if their life is in jeopardy because they voluntarily gave up food by their own free will, and hence Israeli prison authorities have no responsibility for their fate. Some news reports in Israel have speculated about whether if one or more hunger strikers dies in prison it will spark an uprising among the Palestinians, but this is less an expression of concern or a willingness to look at the substantive issues than it is a source of worry about future stability.
Broader issues are also at stake. When in the past Palestinians resorted to violent forms of resistance they were branded by the West as terrorists, their deeds were covered to bring out sensationalist aspects, but when Palestinians resort to non-violent forms of resistance, whether hunger strikes or BDS or an intifada, their actions fall mainly on deaf ears and blind eyes, or worse, there is a concerted propaganda spin to depict the particular tactic of nonviolent resistance as somehow illegitimate, either as a cheap trick to gain sympathy or as a dirty trick to destroy the state of Israel. All the while, Israel’s annexationist plans move ahead, with settlements expanding, and now recently, with settler outposts, formerly illegal even under Israeli law, being in the process of being retroactively legalized. Such moves signal once and for all that the Netanyahu leadership exhibits not an iota of good faith when it continues to tell the world that it is dedicated to negotiating a peace treaty with the Palestinians. It is a pity that the Palestinian Authority has not yet had the diplomatic composure to call it quits when it comes to heeding the calls of the Quartet for a resumption of direct talks. It is long past time to crumble bridge to nowhere.
That rock star of liberal pontificators, Thomas Friedman, has for years been preaching non-violence to the Palestinians, implying that Israel as a democratic country with a strong moral sensitivity would yield in the face of such a principled challenge. Yet when something as remarkable as this massive expression of a Palestinian commitment to non-violent resistance in the form of this open-ended hunger strike, dubbed ‘the war of empty stomachs’, takes place, Friedman along with his liberal brothers is stony silent, and the news sections of the newspaper of the New York Times are unable to find even an inch of space to report on these dramatic protests against Israel’s use of administrative detention and abusive treatment during arrest, interrogation, and imprisonment. Shame on you, Mr. Friedman!
Robert Malley, another influential liberal voice who had been a Middle East advisor to Bill Clinton when he was president, while more constrained than Friedman, suggests that any sustained display of Palestinian non-violence if met with Israeli violence would be an embarrassment for Washington. Malley insists that if the Palestinians were to take to the streets in the spirit of Tahrir Square, and Israelis responded violently, as the Netanyahu government certainly, it “would put the United States in an ..acute dilemma about how to react to Israel’s reaction.” The dilemma depicted by Malley derives from Obama constant encouragement of the democratic aspirations of a people who he has repeatedly said deserve their own state on the one side and the unconditional alignment with Israel on the other. Only a confirmed liberal would call this a genuine dilemma, as any informed and objective observer would know, that the U.S. Government would readily accept, as it has repeatedly done in the past, an Israeli claim that force was needed to maintain public order. In this manner, Palestinian non-violence would be disregarded, and the super-alliance of these two partners in crime once more reaffirmed.
Let there be no mistake about the moral and spiritual background of the challenge being mounted by these Palestinians. Undertaking an open ended hunger strike is an inherently brave act that is fraught with risks and uncertainties, and is only undertaken as an expression of extreme frustration or acute deprivation. It is not an act undertaken lightly or as a stunt. For anyone who has attempted to express protest in this manner, and I have for short periods during my decade of opposition to the Vietnam War, it is both scary and physically taxing even for a day or so, but to maintain the discipline and strength of will to sustain such a strike for weeks at a time requires a rare combination of courage and resolve. Only specially endowed individuals can adopt such a tactic. For a hunger strike to be done on such a scale of collective action not only underscores the horrible ordeal of the Palestinians that has been all but erased from the political consciousness of the West in the hot aftermath of the Arab Spring,
The world has long refused to take notice of Palestinian one-sided efforts over the years to reach a peaceful outcome of their conflict with Israel. It is helpful to recall that in 1988 the PLO officially accepted Israel within 1967 borders, a huge territorial concession, leaving the Palestinians with only 22% of historical Palestine on which to establish an independent and sovereign state. In recent years, the main tactics of Palestinian opposition to the occupation, including on the part of Hamas, has been to turn away from violence, adhering to a diplomacy and practice that looked toward long-term peaceful coexistence between two peoples. Israel has not taken note of either development, and has instead continuous thrown sand in Palestinian eyes. The official Israeli response to Palestinian moves toward political restrain and away from violence have been to embark upon a program of feverish settlement expansion, extensive targeted killing, reliance on excessive retaliatory violence, as well as an intensifying oppressiveness that gave rise to these hunger strikes. One dimension of this oppressiveness is the 50% increase in the number of Palestinians held under administrative detention during of the last year, along with an officially mandated worsening of conditions throughout its prison system.
The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Richard Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories [0Pt].
Falk slams treatment of Palestinian prisoners
UN’s special rapporteur says Israel’s use of administrative detention “flies in the face of int’l fair trial standards.”
By Tovah Lazarof, JPost
UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk spoke Wednesday in support of the 1,550 Palestinian prisoners who have been on a hunger strike since April 17.
In a statement he issued to the media from Geneva, he said he was appalled by human rights violations against Palestinians in Israeli prisons
Falk, who is tasked with investigating the situation of human rights under Israeli military rule in the West Bank, said the hunger strike was an act of collective nonviolent resistance against Israeli “occupation.” The prisoners, he said, were also protesting unjust arrest procedures, arbitrary detention and bad prison condition.
“I urge the government of Israel to respect its international human rights obligations towards all Palestinian prisoners,” Falk said.
Since the Six Day War in 1967, 750,000 Palestinians, or 20 percent of West Bank Palestinians and 40% of male Palestinians in that area, have spent time in jail, he said.
Although the 1,550 hunger-strikers are not administrative detainees, Falk also slammed Israel for holding Palestinians without leveling charges against them.
“Israel’s wide use of administrative detention flies in the face of international fair trial standards,” he said. “Detainees must be able to effectively challenge administrative detention orders, including by ensuring that lawyers have full access to the evidence on which the order was issued.”
He said that Israel has some 300 Palestinians in administrative detention.
Four administrative detainees are also on a hunger strike. According to Physicians for Human Rights in Israel, two of them are entering their 65th day.
Palestinian activists have rallied around the cause of the hunger strikers, holding protests Tuesday and Wednesday in Betunia, on the outskirts of Ramallah, not far from Ofer Prison.
They plan to hold protests every day. There is a demonstration planned for noon on Thursday. Friday’s weekly demonstrations will be dedicated to the prisoners’ cause.
Tuesday and Wednesday’s rallies both took a violent turn.
According to the IDF, the protesters, some of the masked, threw stones, Molotov cocktails and burnings tires at soldiers and border police. A number of security personnel were lightly wounded.
Abir Kopty of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee said the IDF shot tear gas and rubber bullets at the demonstrators, wounding some 20 people, of whom five were sent to the hospital.
A video the committee released from Tuesday’s demonstration showed a woman climbing onto the roof of a white IDF vehicle, designed to spray “skunk water” on protesters.
Media Release, Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel
RAMALLAH—-JAFFA—Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahleh are at risk of death as they enter their 69th day of hunger strike in protest of their administrative detention. In spite of their rapidly deteriorating health, the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) is still denying regular access to them by independent Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-Israel)—Addameer and PHR-Israel are outraged by the blatant breach of medical ethics committed by the IPS in regards to these most urgent cases and by the negligence of the Israeli High Court judges who have yet to make a decision regarding their petition.
After continual denial of access to Bilal Diab and news of his further deterioration, PHR-Israel submitted an urgent appeal to the District Court yesterday, 5 May, demanding that the IPS allow a PHR-Israel doctor to visit him, and for his family to visit him immediately. Though Bilal is entitled to a second medical opinion, the urgent appeal was rejected and postponed until a regular hearing on 7 May. Addameer and PHR-Israel are further dismayed that personnel in Assaf Harofeh Hospital, where Bilal is currently held, are placing obstacles in front of the PHR-Israel independent doctor in her attempts to ensure that her patient, Bilal, receives trusted care during this critical period. An examination by Member of Knesset Dr. Ahmad Tibi after Bilal’s collapse on 3 May indicated that Bilal is experiencing hypothermia and losing sensation in his feet. Additionally troubling is the IPS’ refusal to transfer Thaer Halahleh to a public hospital from the Ramleh Prison medical clinic, where he is currently held.
Following the Israeli High Court hearing on 3 May regarding the petition against Bilal and Thaer’s administrative detention orders, Judge Eliakim Rubenstein noted that a decision would be made at a later time, without specifying when. As of this afternoon, there is still no decision. By ignoring the gravity of their current situation, the High Court judges are not only acting with severe negligence, but also with malicious intent. Judges Rubenstein, Noam Saulberg and Yuram Dinzinger are knowingly delaying the decision despite Bilal and Thaer’s days potentially being numbered, without even providing any certainty as to when a decision will be made.
Hassan Safadi is now on his 63rd day of hunger strike and is currently held in the Ramleh Prison medical clinic. Addameer lawyer Mahmoud Hassan succeeded in visiting Hassan today, 6 May. He noted that Hassan’s health is deteriorating and that he is very weak and cannot stand, but vows to continue his hunger strike. He is refusing any treatment or examination by prison doctors.
Hassan reported that on 3 May, he was held down by prison guards and forcefully given treatment by a prison doctor via an injection in his arm. Addameer and PHR-Israel are alarmed by this news, as forced treatment is in strict violation of the principles of medical ethics and the guidelines of the World Medical Association and the Israeli Medical Association. According to the Malta Declaration, “Physicians need to satisfy themselves that food or treatment refusal is the individual’s voluntary choice. Hunger strikers should be protected from coercion. Physicians can often help to achieve this and should be aware that coercion may come from the peer group, the authorities or others, such as family members. Physicians or other health care personnel may not apply undue pressure of any sort on the hunger striker to suspend the strike. Treatment or care of the hunger striker must not be conditional upon suspension of the hunger strike.”
Hassan also recounted having refused water for several days until he was moved to Ramleh Prison medical clinic. Upon his arrival, he was beaten by prison guards, and the prison doctor refused to record the injuries sustained from the attack. Since the beginning of his hunger strike, Hassan has had no visits from independent doctors. PHR-Israel petitioned the District Court to allow them access, and the court ordered the IPS to allow a PHR-Israel doctor a visit no later than 7 May, though when PHR-Israel tried to coordinate a visit on 4 May, the IPS denied their request.
The appeal for Jaafar Azzedine, now on his 46th day of hunger strike, was also postponed today by an Israeli military judge. The judge, who also ruled in Hana Shalabi’s case and rejected her appeal, said that he already decided in Hana’s case that he would not consider critical medical condition due to hunger strike as a reason for accepting an appeal, and that he would let the High Court judges in Bilal and Thaer’s case decide on this fact.
In light of growing concern for their lives, Addameer and PHR-Israel demand:
●the immediate transfer of Thaer Halahleh to a public hospital, and the transfer of prisoners on hunger strike for more than 40 days to hospitals, in addition to unrestricted access for lawyers and independent physicians to all hunger strikers, especially Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahleh;
●that no hunger striker be shackled while hospitalized;
●that all hunger strikers—especially those in advanced stages of hunger strike—be allowed family visits, while they are still lucid;
●that all information be given to families as to the medical condition of their loved ones, which is the responsibility of hospitals and medical staff in accordance with medical ethics and confidentiality standards;
●that Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahleh, along with all other administrative detainees, be immediately and unconditionally released.