Hunger Strikes: what have we learned?

There are always lessons to be learned in the observing of events, and the recent hunger strike movement is no exception.

As the details on the agreement to end the collective hunger strike of thousands of Palestinian prisoners continue to unravel, it is important to begin addressing what we have learned from this whole, momentous episode.

For one thing, these Palestinians demonstrated once again that they are willing to sacrifice everything—including their lives—to challenge the injustice of the Israeli occupation. This was a tremendous act of willpower, in which people starved themselves for more than two months, in order to draw attention to their plight. And what is this plight? It is being thrown in prison for months, or even years, without charge, trial or evidence. It is about lives suddenly broken and upended without the slightest recourse to justice as we know it.

We have also learned once again about the ease with which a Palestinian can be taken from his or her home and tossed into a prison cell for no apparent reason. And when Israel is demanded to proffer evidence, it cannot, hiding behind the excuse that the evidence is secret and risks exposing certain sources. Thus, an unaccountable intelligence agency can offer secret “evidence”—that cannot be challenged by the accused—in a military court in which the judge does not question the reliability of the information. (If you want to see how this works, watch the documentary “The Law in These Parts,”  or read the report, “Without Trial” by B’Tselem.) And this is the daily reality that a people have lived in for nearly 45 years of occupation.

This should also make us realize—if we have not already—that despite the Oslo Accords and the existence of a quasi-Palestinian government, the people have absolutely no security and no protection. Whether it is from the Jewish settlers who attack Palestinian farmers and burn their crops, or from the Israeli military and security forces that arrest arbitrarily, the Palestinian Authority is powerless to do anything about it. This in turn causes average Palestinians to question what the point is in a government that cannot even protect its citizens, undermining the entire foundation of a state.

We must also remember that Israel holds all the chips. These hunger strikers have managed to pressure Israel into a level of accommodation, but only while people are focused on the issue. As soon as that attention dissipates, Israel is free to take back what it has offered. In the relationship between the occupier and the occupied, Israel is the Lord who giveth and taketh away. What will the Palestinians do? Stage another collective hunger strike only to repeat the process of give and take? The costs are simply too high to stage such a strike every time the need arises to challenge the system.

This was one of the major inadequacies of the hunger strike that was launched on April 17, as opposed to the one that preceded it. The ten individual hunger strikers, beginning with Khader Adnan on December 17, were fighting against administrative detention. This was a worthy cause because administrative detention is one aspect—and probably the most egregious—of an inhumane system of military “justice” in the occupied territories. The larger collective hunger strike that was launched afterwards challenged the conditions and treatment of the prisoners by the Israel Prison Service. This is markedly different. It is not necessarily a bad or unworthy effort, but it overshadowed the more important cause of challenging the system as a whole. By protesting the conditions inside the cells, and not the nature of the imprisonment to begin with, Israel was able to belittle the collective hunger strike as little more than prisoners demanding plasma TVs in their cells (using hyperbolic Israeli terminology), for example. Furthermore, when those simpler demands could be met by Israel, it had the effect of taking momentum away from the prisoners who were contesting administrative detention and thus weakening the nobler goal.

On a positive note, however, this was in my humble opinion just one more example in the growing trend of grassroots initiatives taken by average Palestinians who are challenging the occupation on their own. No longer leaving the official centers of power responsible for securing Palestinian rights, individuals and groups at the grassroots levels are increasingly adopting this responsibility. From BDS to the popular struggle to Khader Adnan, people are not waiting around anymore for the old political factions to act. This is the most important change happening in Palestinian politics and the hunger strikes have highlighted this.

Moreover, they have also reaffirmed the perception that the Palestinian Authority does not want to rock the boat. Very little public effort was initiated by the PA during the entirety of the hunger strike movement. When the father of hunger striker Hana Shalabi asked Mahmoud Abbas in person to help get his daughter released, the president replied: there is little I can do.

Where was the international community?

Nor does the world seem to care. In the words of UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights, Richard Falk:

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.

The lack of media coverage and public outcry abroad only serves to deepen the impression among Palestinians that no matter what they do, how desperate and dramatic the effort, the world will ignore their pleas for help. While preaching to the Palestinians for decades on their need to adopt a non-violent platform, no act of non-violence on behalf of the Palestinians elicits a response from their preachers. When one questions the reason for near-ubiquitous disillusionment by Palestinian society, this goes a long way in answering why.

Nonetheless, the effort was good enough to pressure Israel into seeking a way out. The prospect of Palestinian civil unrest in response to the death of one or more prisoners did not sit well with Israel and it took the necessary measures to release the tension. This exposes the power of unarmed resistance—it leaves Israel with little excuse for its reprehensible behavior and policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

But lurking in the shadows of a Palestinian achievement was Israel’s public relations machine, spinning everything in its favor. As the international media pounced on the story only in its final hour, most news outlets, including The New York Times, were reporting that the Palestinian prisoners and political parties had agreed to give up on terrorism in exchange for Israel meeting the demands of the prisoners. Quoting only Israeli sources on the stipulation, Israel was able to spin the story into an achievement. I mean, who wouldn’t give in to the prisoners’ demands in exchange for bringing down an entire system of terror to its knees in the single swipe of a pen? What a joke.