Hunger strikes shouldn’t be the only time to protect Palestinian prisoners

Not a day goes by without Israel detaining Palestinians or abusing prisoners' rights, yet its allies still choose to turn a blind eye.

Palestinians and Israelis protest outside Kaplan Medical Center demanding the release of Maher al-Akhras from administrative detention, Rehovot, November 3, 2020. (Oren Ziv)
Palestinians and Israelis protest outside Kaplan Medical Center demanding the release of Maher al-Akhras from administrative detention, Rehovot, November 3, 2020. (Oren Ziv)

After 91 days of hunger strike in protest of Israel’s systemic practice of administrative detention, in which Palestinians are indefinitely detained without charge or trial, Palestinian prisoner Maher al-Akhras was finally reunited with his family. The image of al-Akhras hugging his daughter on his hospital bed has become a symbol of his successful struggle. But while al-Akhras’ determination secured his release, the fight is far from over.

All Palestinian families know the meaning of having a relative in prison, and any Palestinian could be jailed without charge, just like al-Akhras. Since Israel began its military occupation in 1967, it has imprisoned almost 800,000 Palestinians; currently, it is holding more than 350 Palestinians without charge. This dominating role of the prison system highlights the arbitrariness and cruelty of an apartheid regime that has been enshrined in every aspect of Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians.

Al-Akhras’ hunger strike was not the first of its kind — a fact that reflects how persistent the unjust conditions of administrative detainees have been throughout the years, and the dramatic ordeals that Palestinian prisoners must go through in order to change them. In the past, such strikes usually lasted fewer days before Israeli authorities would shift their policy; this time, the authorities refused to budge until the last moment. This goes for international actors, too, who belatedly pay attention to the hunger strikers only when the health of the detainees enters their most critical stages.

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This makes al-Akhras’ strike all the more heroic, knowing that his effort could have led to his death. It is even more so given that the strike was an individual decision by al-Akhras, rather than a group initiative, which the prisoners’ movement is often cautious about out of concern for the solo prisoner’s welfare. Still, despite the odds, al-Akhras’ strike succeeded in limiting the period of his detention.

Maher al-Akhras, who after 103 days ended a hunger strike in protest at his administrative detention, is fed by his daughter at the Kaplan Medical Center, Rehovot, November 26, 2020. (Muhammad Abu As’ad Kana’na)
Maher al-Akhras, who after 103 days ended a hunger strike in protest at his administrative detention, is fed by his daughter at the Kaplan Medical Center, Rehovot, November 26, 2020. (Muhammad Abu As’ad Kana’na)

For the Israeli government, al-Akhras’s life was probably insignificant. Indeed, the U.S.-led process of normalization between certain Arab countries and Israel in recent months has given the occupying power a new cover under which to hide many of its oppressive policies on the ground.

While the world focuses on whether or not Israel will formally annex large swaths of the occupied West Bank, Israel is continuing to expand settlements and demolish homes with impunity. This is the basis on which Israel can move ahead with other systematic violations, including against prisoners; not a day goes by without Israel detaining or torturing Palestinians, or stripping them of their basic rights.

Despite these policies, some in the international community continue to refer to Israel as a “like-minded country” with which they share values. Surprisingly, most of these friendly nations come from Europe — a continent proud of its democratic institutions, adherence to international law, and respect for human rights. But if these are their proclaimed values, how could they feel such affinity with a country that systematically violates the very norms that sustain their foreign policies?

Creating an environment conducive to a just and lasting peace is impossible while turning a blind eye to grave human rights violations time and again. Rather, accountability must be ensured so as to prevent the repetition of such assaults.

That is why, as Palestinian human rights organizations, we have once again addressed the international community in a variety of forms, from the United Nations to the European Union, to remind them of their obligation to protect human rights and enforce the implementation of international humanitarian law. They cannot say they did not know.

Palestinians hold posters of journalist and former hunger striking prisoner Mohammed al-Qiq during a protest in support of Ahmed Nassar who was jailed in Israeli prison, in the West Bank city of Nablus, March 07, 2017. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)
Palestinians hold posters of journalist and former hunger striking prisoner Mohammed al-Qiq during a protest in support of Ahmed Nassar who was jailed in Israeli prison, in the West Bank city of Nablus, March 07, 2017. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

What can be done to stop such illegal Israeli policies and practices? The international community — particularly Europe as Israel’s main trade partner — should know that this is not going to stop by maintaining the current approach of considering Palestinian rights as secondary to its relations with Israel, but rather by conditioning such relations on Israel respecting its obligations under international law.

Such stern action is not unprecedented. When Khader Adnan conducted his hunger strike in 2012, it was international pressure, particularly from the EU, that compelled Israel to release him after 66 days. In other cases, Arab states such as Egypt intervened in negotiations to allow families from Gaza to visit their relatives in prison, as well as to end the solitary confinement of various prisoners. Although Israel repeatedly disregarded these agreements later and imposed more restrictions on prisoners over the years, the lessons show that sustained international pressure and scrutiny is required to force Israel to abide by its obligations under humanitarian law.

This is not only about Donald Trump’s administration encouraging Israeli crimes: most of the world’s governments have shown indifference to Israel’s oppressive policies, and are therefore complicit. Even some so-called “progressive” governments, such as Canada, have gone to court in order to prevent Israeli settlement products — made illegally on occupied land — from being labeled as such, thus undermining efforts to hold the occupation to account.

Some international officials have expressed to Palestinian rights groups their hopes in the upcoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden. This hope will vanish if Biden continues the same tolerance of Israeli violations as his predecessor. If his administration is truly interested in making peace, he will listen to the progressive voices around him and condition military and political aid to Israel on respect for human rights.

Not all Palestinian administrative detainees and political prisoners are able to conduct a hunger strike to the extent that Maher al-Akhras did. But all Palestinians believe that his sacrifice should not go in vain.

Although the Israeli justice system is merely another tool to legitimize oppression, as Palestinian human rights defenders, we simply cannot give up — just as al-Akhras did not. We will continue calling upon members of the international community, including the International Criminal Court, to assume their responsibility.