Don’t Believe the Israeli Government: Palestinian Hunger Strikers Won Important Victories

Palestinian prisoners forced Israel to the negotiating table and inspired a global outpouring of support.

Tamara Nassar

In Gaza City, public workers draw pay on June 5, 2006, the first time in three months.

After 40 days of subsisting on only salt and water, hundreds of Palestinian prisoners declared an end to their Freedom and Dignity” hunger strike on May 27, following the capitulation of the Israel Prison Service (IPS) to some key demands for improvements to their conditions of confinement. Yet, the majority of the 834 hunger strikers remain in dire need of medical attention, and the protesters — along with their global supporters — say that the effort to address human rights abuses is far from over.

The Prisoners’ Solidarity Committee announced Saturday that the deal with the IPS was struck after 20 hours of negotiations. The fact that there were negotiations at all is notable, given that the initial response of Israeli officials was to vehemently reject that possibility.

Issa Qaraqe, director of the Palestinian Committee of Prisoners’ Affairs, said 80 percent of the hunger strikers’ demands had been met, and described the outcome as a fundamental transformation in the terms of the prisoners’ living conditions,” according to Ma’an News Agency. Conveying the words of Palestinian prisoner Nasser Abu Hmeid, lawyer Karim Ajweh told Ma’an outlined some of the hunger strikers’ successes:

  • Prisoners won a wide range of improvements on visitation rights, such as allowing visits from second-degree family members.
  • Prisoners will be granted two monthly visits instead of one, in what is merely a restoration of old regulations, cancelled by the International Committee of the Red Cross in August of last year.
  • Prisoners will be allowed photographs with parents or spouses under certain circumstances and will be granted permission for the exchange of clothing, bags, and sweets with their visitors.
  • Competent recreational equipment will be introduced into the yards.
  • The agreements ensure adequate conditions for transferring people between prisons, including keeping the prisoners close to their families’ places of residence. Israel often transfers prisoners from jails and courts within the Occupied territories to prisons and courts in Israel proper, which Palestinian family members need permits to access. Those permits can be denied, effectively cutting off family members from their loved ones.

The IPS denied hunger strikers’ claims that some demands had been met, stating that no benefits were given to national security prisoners in return to quitting the hunger strike and there were no negotiations on this matter.” These remarks are consistent with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ public attempts, from the outset, to denigrate the efforts of the strikers and downplay the effectiveness of their collective action.

Given this public denial, prisoners and their supporters say it will be vital to hold Israel accountable for implementing its commitments.

Outpouring of global solidarity

While Israeli settlers held barbeques outside the prisons to taunt those on strike, the international community flooded the hunger strikers with support.

Aarab Barghouthi is the 26-year-old son of imprisoned Fateh figure and strike leader, Marwan Barghouthi. He launched the Salt Water Challenge” campaign in April in solidarity with the hunger strike. Similar to the Ice Bucket Challenge,” the campaign urges participants to drink salt and water to demonstrate their support for the strikers and challenges others to do the same. The action went viral in a matter of days, with participants from all over the world taking part to demonstrate their support and voice the plight of the prisoners.

Barghouthi expressed his motivations to In These Times, explaining: One week before [the strike], my sister saw [our father], and she told him that she didn’t want him to do it. And he told her that he’s doing it for us, he’s doing it to be able to hug us, he is doing it to be able to take a photo with us.”

Protests were held globally in support of the Palestinian prisoners, led by groups including Jewish Voice for Peace, Black4Palestine, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and the International Trade Union Confederation. Leaders, government officials, and political parties also expressed their support, including the Uruguay’s national labor confederation, the Irish socialist republican party Éirígí’, and the Portuguese parliament. Prisoners from all over the world sent messages of solidarity, from the Republican Irish Prisoners to the Filipino Political Prisoners.

Many even launched symbolic hunger strikes of their own, including several South African cabinet ministers and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. Since May third, members of the group Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) each staged successive, 24-hour fasts in solidarity with the prisoners’ strike.

Separate and Unequal Justice”

While Palestinian hunger strikers won limited improvements to their conditions, they were also objecting to how Israel uses its judicial system as a tool of occupation. On April 16, the day before the strike’s inception, Marwan Barghouthi announced in a New York Times op-ed that the strikers demanded an end to solitary confinement and administrative detention, which subjects ordinary Palestinians to martial law.

Despite the prisoners’ gains, these systems remains in place.

Palestinians in the West Bank are tried in military court, while their Jewish counterparts are tried in civilian court. According to to the human rights group Addameer, since the Six Day War in 1967, more than 800,000 Palestinians have been detained — amounting to approximately 40 percent of the Palestinian male population. The joke goes that if you are born a Palestinian male in the West Bank, you are bound to see the inside of an Israeli prison cell.

In Gaza, families have developed a strategy to smuggle sperm from detainees to their wives to resist this form of ethnic cleansing.

Many Palestinians held in Israeli prisons do not get a charge or a trial, but instead face administrative detention on the basis of secret evidence.” Israel has the power to bar Palestinians on administrative detention from access to a lawyer for up to sixty days. Though each detention is limited to six months, Israel reserves the authority to indefinitely renew administrative detention without legal proceedings. 

U.S. culpability

Since the Second World War, Israel has been the single largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign aid. In September of last year, the United States signed an agreement that pledges a 38-billion-dollar package to Israel over the next decade.

U.S. support to Israel does not end there, as congressional forces continue to push for the criminalization of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which emerged from Palestinian civil society in 2005. BDS calls on the international community to economically sanction Israel as a non-violent effort to pressure it into abiding by international law.

In contrast to their government, many in the United States are demonstrating solidarity. I believe that the Palestinian community in the U.S., in general, is a treasure that we are not using efficiently, in my opinion,” said Barghouthi. Since I’ve been here, I saw how people are really still in love with Palestine. They put it on their priorities.”

But I think it needs the new blood to take the lead,” he continued. I think the, with all due respect to the old generation, they don’t understand this era is about social media, this era is about reaching as many people as we can, and the beautiful thing about our cause is that it’s the right cause.” 

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Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada. She can be found on twitter @TamaraINassar.
Illustrated cover of Gaza issue. Illustration shows an illustrated representation of Gaza, sohwing crowded buildings surrounded by a wall on three sides. Above the buildings is the sun, with light shining down. Above the sun is a white bird. Text below the city says: All Eyes on Gaza
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