The Next Intifada Will Be Born Behind Bars

Patrick O. Strickland

Palestinian girls hold pictures of relatives imprisoned in Israeli jails during a protest in Gaza City on January 21. Ongoing hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners have inspired mass solidarity demonstrations.

Ahead of Tuesday’s general elections in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended settlements in the West Bank and pledged not to dismantle any should he be re-elected. His victory all but confirms the dim outlook for a renewed peace process that many Palestinians projected. While the weakening of his party’s majority may necessitate a coalition with centrist parties, an editorial in the Palestinian daily Al-Quds argues that such parties will provide little more than cosmetic decoration” for repressive policies. But all is not lost — against the grain of Netanyahu’s recalcitrance, a wave of overwhelmingly nonviolent Palestinian resistance continues to gain strength.

During the past two weeks, Palestinian activists have set up two different encampments on land slated for Jewish settlement. In the West Bank, a movement has blossomed around a set of creative new challenges to Israel’s 45-year military occupation. Sit-ins, marches, graffiti, bike rides that challenge movement restrictions, and freedom rides” in which activists board Israeli settler buses to challenge segregated roads and transportation are just a few further examples. A crucial component of this struggle has been the mass acts of resistance by Palestinian prisoners.

Palestinian prisoners revolt 

The political trajectory of the last few years suggests the next popular Palestinian uprising is already brewing inside Israeli prisons. According to the Addammeer Prisoner Support Network, a Palestinian human rights organization, 4,656 Palestinians were imprisoned as of December 2012. Among them were 178 administrative detainees held without charge, 177 children, and 13 Palestinian Legislative Council members.

Locking up potential Palestinian leaders is a crucial aspect of Israeli hegemony: enforcing the occupation demands stifling an otherwise blossoming civil society. This includes assaults on academics, human rights organizations, and activists.

The potential volume of prisoners’ voices first became evident when Islamic Jihad activist Khader Adnan, who was being held on secret information” in administrative detention, captured international headlines by launching a highly publicized 66-day hunger strike that forced Israeli Prison Services to release him.

Just two days after Adnan ended his hunger strike, another administrative detainee, Hana Shalabi, began a hunger strike that spanned 43 days and nearly took her life. Again, under immense pressure, Israel agreed to release Shalabi, though this time into the Gaza Strip instead of her West Bank village.

Inspired by the successes of Adnan and Shalabi, some two thousand prisoners declared a mass hunger strike in April 2012. In exchange for prisoners ending the strike, Israeli Prison Services negotiators grudgingly agreed to end solitary confinement, allow family visits for prisoners from the Gaza Strip, improve prison conditions, and not to extend the sentences of administrative detainees without charging them. According to an Addameer representative, Israel has reneged on almost all of the obligations on which it agreed.”

Immediately afterwards, the prisoners disappeared from the headlines, but the movement neither ceased nor faded from the public discourse in Palestine. Despite the absence of attention, hunger strikes have continued uninterrupted since this time.

All the while, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as those carrying Israeli citizenship, expressed immense solidarity with their imprisoned counterparts. Large demonstrations in the occupied territories threatened to turn violent, often provoking clashes between soldiers and protesters, and demonstrations by the Arab Palestinian minority in Israel surprised onlookers in cities, towns, and universities across the country.

The plight of prisoners has proved to be one of the rare issues capable of bringing unity in a Palestinian political landscape otherwise plagued with strife and division. As Palestinian spoken word poet Rafeef Ziadah put it, In your hunger, we finally find our own again. You cultivate hope in the rest of us. In your strength, we are no longer 67 Palestinians, 48 Palestinians, no numbers dividing us by massacres attached to our skin…”

The coming uprising

The prisoners have put Israel in a bind. On the one hand, the government does not want to cave in to the demands of every prisoner who refuses to eat; on the other, it undoubtedly fears that that a dead hunger striker could serve as the immediate precipitant for the next massive uprising.

This fear became clear in October when soldiers arrested Ayman Nasser, a human rights researcher and activist, and charged him with organizing solidarity protests on behalf of prisoners as well as attending a public festival (incidentally along with thousands of other Palestinians) that commemorated the life of the late PFLP leader Abu Ali Mustafa. Following in suit in December, the military ransacked Addameer’s office in Ramallah, an operation in which laptops, hard drives, prisoner files, and money were looted.

Ayman and Addameer are targets of Israeli occupation forces specifically because we expose the brutality of the occupation and because we are so vocal,” an Addameer representative said in an interview the next day.

The Palestinian Authority officially has a ministry dedicated to detainees and prisoners … however, there is little the PA can do beyond lip service,” he continued.

The sentiment in the streets is one of increasing frustration with what many Palestinians perceive as a lack of meaningful action by their government. On January 21, protesters in Ramallah’s Al-Amari refugee camp barricaded a road and demonstrated on behalf of prisoners from the camp. Palestinian police entered the camp and used live ammunition against demonstrators in one of the most serious clashes to date between West Bank residents and Palestinian Authority security forces. Three protesters sustained critical injuries after being shot with live rounds.

This instance is a microcosm of the broader role of the semi-sovereign Palestinian Authority: The Oslo Accords have created a situation in which Palestinians themselves are enforcing their own occupation. 

On November 29, 2012, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a resolution to upgrade Palestine to an observer state,” recognizing it as a sovereign entity encompassing the territories occupied by Israel during the June 1967 war. The next day, Palestinians woke up to find that nothing had changed: Israeli checkpoints, settlements, and military bases were still there; land confiscations, military closures, and imprisonments continued unhindered.

Meanwhile, there are presently four prisoners on hunger strike: Jazzer Azzidine, Yousef Yassin, Tarek Qa’adin, and Samer Al-Issawi (who is on partial hunger strike). They are all being held in administrative detention, and the health of each is declining rapidly. Additionally, an emaciated Ayman Sharawna, who this month ended an astounding 180-day strike, is still recovering. The loss of any of their lives could open the flood gates, leading to widespread rebellion against Israel’s occupation and probably against the increasingly malignant Palestinian government as well.

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Patrick O. Strickland is a freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in Al Jazeera English, Middle East Monitor, GlobalPost, International Socialist Review, and elsewhere. He can be followed on Twitter: p_strickland_
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