As prisoners reach the breaking point, what will Israel do?

A fateful moment awaits as Israel is forced to choose how it will handle the Palestinian prisoner revolt.

In the next few days, something momentous will occur. A group of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike for over 60 days will either be released from incarceration in Israeli prison without charge or trial, or they will likely die.

And it will not end there, either. Many more have followed them down this perilous road of life, death and principle. In fact, thousands more.

Two Palestinians—Khader Adnan and Hana Shalabi—have already crossed the finish line, securing their release from prison—through deals cut with the Israeli government. Yet will Israel release any more, and in so doing, allow the military justice system, in place in the occupied territories for decades, to crumble?

Know their names. Bilal Diab. Thaer Halahleh. Hasan Safadi. Jafaar Izzedine. These men and thousands more men and women—prisoners with no rights—have usurped some of the power from their jailers and are challenging the system of imprisonment that has been used to subjugate Palestinians for nearly half a century.

Under the radar, Israeli leaders are scrambling for a way out. All types of measures have been used to break the will of hunger strikers, including excessive bouts of solitary confinement and psychological pressure aimed at weakening their resolve. The tactics have not worked. As thousands have joined the hunger strike movement it appears it has gone well beyond Israel’s ability to stop.

The future remains uncertain. Will the death of prisoners in Israel jails ignite the occupied territories or will they simply fizzle out? Although very little seems capable of mustering mainstream Palestinian society these days, the reaction to this eventuality is unpredictable. Prisoners are a decisive issue for Palestinians (read here). Moreover, as the peace process comes to an inglorious end, the status quo is increasingly fragile. The political and economic horizons for Palestinians are beginning to close once again. Times are changing.


One reader pointed out the connection to Bobby Sands and the IRA hunger strikes of the early 1980s. This connection was pointedly made during the 66-day hunger strike of Khader Adnan (coincidentally Sands would die of starvation on the 66th day of his own hunger strike). @RichardL also gave a link to a Guardian piece on the impact of the IRA hunger strikes, which ended in the deaths of 10 prisoners during Margaret Thatcher’s government and its impact.

The death of 10 men in the 1981 hunger strike was to prove a defining moment in the struggle between the Provisional IRA and the British government or, to be more precise, the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

The end of the strike after seven months was reported at the time as a victory for Thatcher’s fortitude. In fact, it proved to be the opposite. It boosted the ranks of the IRA, radicalised nationalist politics and can now be seen as the beginning of the process that led to Sinn Féin’s emergence as a vote-winning political party on either side of the disputed Irish border.

The article also discusses the English press’s coverage of the IRA hunger strikes. There is really little reason to discuss the Israeli press’s coverage of the hunger strike movement because it has been next to negligible. In the words of Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar in an interview with me:

[Israelis] don’t give a shit. They think that they deserve it. And in the best case they should rot in a jail for the rest of their life. In the worst case they should be executed. And it is a waste of money to keep them there and to feed them.

This is the way they feel good with themselves. You see, most Israelis don’t really care about anything that is connected with Palestinians, or with ‘the other.’ They are so busy with their victimization, which they will never give up. So, prisoners are the victim of the occupation, victims of the violence, victims of the situation. But Israelis will never give up their right to be the victim. This is not only in regards to the prisoners, but to the occupation…

Yet the parallels to the IRA hunger strikes are remarkable. As the Guardian article notes:

But there was no genuine attempt to answer that question. Instead, the response was pitiless. “I will shed no tears when Sands dies,” wrote John Junor, then editor of the Sunday Express. “My only hope is that if and when he does every other IRA terrorist will go on the same sort of hunger strike in sympathy. And stay on it until they are all in wooden suits.”

As I reflect upon all this, I do it with the belief that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is steadily moving its way down a new path. The resolution of this conflict at the official levels of state, where they have worked to no avail for at least the last 20 years, is coming to an end. The people are once again taking action into their own hands. The hunger strike movement will do nothing for the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority. But it will be a lightening rod in the hands of those who wish to continue to rally those inside Palestine and around the world to their cause.

Read also:
Palestinian Prisoners’ Day: Hundreds join hunger strike
Randa Adnan, wife of hunger striker, discusses her husband’s struggle
Palestinian Prisoners’ Day: The numbers
Khader Adnan agrees to stop hunger strike in exchange for April release