Shahar Ben-Horin, Socialist Struggle Movement (CWI Israel-Palestine)
The “Strike of Freedom and Honour” is the name given to a mass hunger strike of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, which started indefinitely on the Palestinian Prisoner Day, 17 April. The prisoners are demanding the ending of discrimination on national grounds in prison and arbitrary detention without charge or trial (‘administrative arrests’). Among other things, the prisoners protest against medical neglect, incarceration in isolation, violation of rights to visits, prohibition of telephone calls and denial of the right to academic studies.
Every week sees dozens of military raids on homes of residents throughout the West Bank. Residents are removed from their beds in the middle of the night as a matter of routine. According to Israeli Prison Service (IPS) figures, at the end of April more than 6,100 Palestinian prisoners classified as ‘security prisoners’, including nearly 500 administrative detainees, were held in Israeli jails. Three hundred of the prisoners are minors, according to the Palestinian prisoners’ rights association A-Dameer (‘The Conscience’). Aside from the Security Prisoners held by IPS, further hundreds of Palestinians are held after being criminalised by the occupation authorities as ‘illegal stayers’, usually after seeking work in Israel, and a further dozens of Palestinians are held in facilities of the military and police before being transferred to the hands of the IPS.
In a special statement issued prior to Prisoner’s Day on behalf of the Palestinian Committee for Prisoners Affairs, the Palestinian Prisoners Association and the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, it was noted that since 1948, about a million Palestinians have been incarcerated in Israeli detention facilities. Since October 2015, at the beginning of the ‘eruption’ of protest and escalation in violence, some 10,000 Palestinians have been arrested by Israel, about a third of them teenagers under 18.
Discrimination in incarceration conditions
Israeli regime propaganda, generously assisted by enlisted media, seeks to systematically mark all Palestinian ‘security prisoners’ as murderers. Even if this was true, and it is not, criminal murderers get definitely better incarceration conditions. However, the sweeping incitement is intended to silence public criticism and torpedo discussion on the reality of the occupation. Many of the prisoners were imprisoned for the sole fact of their involvement in a political struggle against the occupation and the national oppression of the Palestinians.
In this context, the State of Israel does not differentiate between those who were imprisoned after taking part in demonstrations or military activity against the military occupation forces in the territories of 1967, and those convicted of killing innocent civilians out of motives connected with the national conflict. In any case, the Palestinian ‘security prisoners’, whether Israeli citizens or residents of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are sweepingly discriminated against in legal procedures and conditions of imprisonment.
Ami Popper, a Jewish ‘security prisoner’, who slaughtered seven Palestinian workers on nationalist grounds, is entitled to holidays from prison, regular phone calls with relatives and even a place of work outside the prison. However, Palestinian ‘security prisoners’ are not entitled to any of these. Since 2011, they have been deprived of the right to study at the Open University, because they are not Jewish, and that is following a cynical measure of collective punishment that was implemented with the pretext of serving as a means of exerting pressure on Hamas to release the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. The policy remained in place even after the prisoner exchange deal that was eventually conducted in the same year.
The prisoners’ main demand is for public telephones to be installed in their prison wings so that they can talk to their relatives. Not only does such an arrangement exist in the criminal wings, but also the most famous Jewish security prisoner, Yigal Amir (who assassinated Israeli prime minister Rabin in 1995), is allowed to talk to his family by telephone. Palestinians are forbidden from doing so. The prisoners are dependent on the smuggling of mobile phones. For allegedly assisting in such smuggling, former Palestinian MK (member of the Israeli parliament, Knesset) Bassel Ghattas (National Democratic Alliance party) was sentenced earlier this year to two years in prison.
Hunger strikes threaten Establishment
During half a century of occupation in the territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, Palestinian prisoners succeeded in improving their conditions of imprisonment through collective and individual hunger strikes, and obtained recognition by the prison authorities of their elected representatives. The current action is the largest hunger strike since 2012, when about 1,500 prisoners went on hunger strike for nearly a month and achieved some improvement in conditions, including partial renewal of family visits from the Gaza Strip. A series of hunger strikes by administrative detainees managed to bring about the release of detainees without an indictment, which only proved the claim that they were arbitrarily detained and refuted the claim of their alleged danger.
In 2014, an extended hunger strike, which at its height involved around 250 administrative detainees, was isolated and eventually collapsed against the background of the military offensive in the West Bank (operation Shuvu Ahim – ‘Come Back Brothers’) and the mass arrests that accompanied it. But the Israeli establishment continues to view hunger strikes among Palestinian prisoners as a threat. In addition to international criticism of Israel, the hunger strikes could ignite military confrontations – Hamas’ military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, has already threatened to take action if the demands of the prisoners are not met – and much more significantly also mass protests on the ground, the more so as the lives of the prisoners and strike leaders become endangered.
The forced-feeding law approved by the Knesset in 2015 is designed to help the state to subdue hunger strikes by restoring the practice of de-facto torture conducted in Israel in the past, and which ironically has led to the only deaths of hunger strikers, so far.
The Israeli Medical Association (doctors’ trade union), as part of the policy of the World Medical Association, issued a vocal criticism against the law and ordered doctors not to cooperate with it. Doctors in hospitals in Ashkelon and Beersheba, for example, refused in 2015 to forcibly feed administrative detainee Muhammad ‘Allan, and last year, doctors in a hospital in ‘Afula refused to forcibly feed the journalist Muhammad al-Qiq, who was also held as an administrative detainee. The lack of collaborationist doctors who would agree to break the hunger strike has now led Netanyahu’s officials to consider flying doctors from abroad to do so. In the meantime, the Health Ministry is briefing hospital managers to prepare for the possibility of forced feeding, and at the same time, IPS, MDA (emergency medical service) and the military are preparing to set up designated clinics in the prisons.
The IPS claims that the number of hunger strikers has dropped to 850 within the first two weeks of the strike, but prisoners’ rights organisations estimate that the number actually climbed to 1,500. In any case, the prison authorities do not hide their concern that the strike will expand, especially if the movement of solidarity with it accelerates. So far, most of the hunger strikers are identified with Fatah. About 3,000 prisoners support Fatah, and despite political divisions between them, there is a possibility that many of them will be convinced to join the protest later on. Additionally, hundreds more prisoners identified with Hamas and PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) are taking part, and the hunger strike may expand among the supporters of these political movements, as well. On 4 May, a number of prisoners who had served as senior commanders in the Hamas militia joined in, and additionally the secretary-general of the PFLP, Ahmad Sa`adat, joined the hunger strike, as well.
“Israel transformed basic rights into privileges”
The most prominent leader of the current strike is Marwan Barghouti, one of 13 Palestinian MPs (members of the Palestinian Legislative Council) imprisoned by Israel, and considered the most popular Palestinian leader today, who is sometimes called the ‘Palestinian Nelson Mandela’. In all the polls, he consistently appears to be the candidate who can draw the most support if in the future he runs – as he plans – for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority.
In an article he succeeded in getting to the New York Times at the start of the strike, Barghouti wrote that the State of Israel has “turned basic rights that should be guaranteed under international law — including some painfully secured through previous hunger strikes — into privileges its prison service decides to grant us or deprive us of.” He added that “Israel has established a dual legal regime, a form of judicial apartheid that provides virtual impunity for Israelis who commit crimes against Palestinians, while criminalising Palestinian presence and resistance. Israel’s courts are a charade of justice, clearly instruments of colonial, military occupation”. He concluded, “Only ending occupation will end this injustice and mark the birth of peace”.
Barghouti, who was one of the leaders of the militias affiliated with Fatah – the Tanzim and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades – survived an assassination attempt in 2001 (“targeted prevention”) by the Israeli military. He was arrested during a military raid on Ramallah the following year and convicted in a civil court for responsibility for approving terrorist actions against civilians on both sides of the Green Line, in which five people were murdered. Barghouti denied the allegations, gave up legal defence as a protest against the trial and claimed he was opposed to harming innocent people.
It should be emphasised that the socialist left opposes the use of terrorist methods in struggles. As opposed to the propaganda of the Israeli establishment, not every person who wages an armed struggle against the occupation is a terrorist. The militias of Fatah, for example, have conducted military actions against the military occupation. Nevertheless, they did not refrain over the years from killing civilians – which has, in fact, not harmed at all the occupation regime and even played into its hands politically, with more brutal attacks being carried out against Palestinian civilians. It is reasonable to assume that as one of the militia commanders, Barghouti has also been responsible for the killing of civilians. But what about former Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin, who as the commander of the Irgun, was directly responsible, among other things, for the massive terrorist attack on the King David Hotel in 1946, in which 91 Britons, Arabs and Jews were killed? And is not present Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu responsible for issuing instructions for actions, such as the bombing of highly populated areas in the Gaza Strip, in which many Palestinian civilians died? In the war in 2014 alone, the number of Palestinians killed was twice that of Israelis killed in all the years of the second intifada.
Barghouti’s popularity is a cause for concern for the Israeli establishment. While Palestinian Authority President Abbas hastened to lavish praise on Trump and met with him on 3 May, and continues to work to maintain full arrangements with the occupation regime, Barghouti corresponds with the public rage against the Palestinian president who is reaching the end of his road. As he explained in an article he leaked to the Palestinian daily al-Quds last year, Barghouti attacks Abbas’s authoritarian rule, explains that the negotiations with Israel and the Palestinian Authority’s diplomatic campaign on the international level have failed, and demands that the PA ends the “security coordination”. In recent years he has called for a new popular intifada. His challenge to Abbas’ leadership is also the reason why, despite coming first in the election in December to the Fatah Central Committee, Abbas refused to appoint him to the position of deputy chairman of the Fatah movement. Abbas has paid lip service in support of the hunger strike, but has no interest in it. He does not want Barghouti to profit politically from the hunger strike or the development of a popular protest movement around it – at the time when he puts his trust in Trump and wants to show he has control on the ground in the Palestinian Authority enclaves.
Barghouti was sent to solitary confinement at the start of the strike. The IPS, using secret video camera surveillance, claims that Barghouti ate on two occasions since the beginning of the hunger strike. In 2004, during another hunger strike involving around 2,200 prisoners, in which Barghouti was amongst the leaders, the IPS also claimed Barghouti was secretly filmed eating a meal in solitary confinement. These claims are angrily denied by Palestinian prisoners’ campaigners, who say the IPS are deliberately spreading black propaganda by using old video footage that was made when there was no prisoners’ hunger strike and that the face of the man eating food in the latest footage is obscured.
If Barghouti is evacuated for medical treatment or forced feeding, or if his life becomes in danger, an escalation in the solidarity protests outside the prisons can be expected. It is not inconceivable that if one of the hunger strikers – and certainly one of the leaders of the hunger strike – pays with his life over the next few weeks, it will ignite a mass protest similar to the response to the deaths of hunger strikers in Northern Ireland in 1981, led by republican prisoner, Bobby Sands, who was elected to Westminster during his protest. Already, now, the hunger strike serves as a mobilising and uniting factor for significant layers among the Palestinian public, on both sides of the Green Line.
Many thousands took part in protest marches held on Prisoner Day throughout the West Bank, particularly in Ramallah, Hebron and Bethlehem. In towns and villages, solidarity protest tents were set up in solidarity with the hunger strike. On 27 April, a protest shut-down of public services and small businesses was held in the Palestinian Authority territories and in East Jerusalem. On the following day there were demonstrations and confrontations with the military and the Border Police in at least 15 locations in the West Bank as part of a ‘Day of Rage’ called for by the Fatah.
The protests in the West Bank are facing military repression, which could worsen later. During the first two weeks of the hunger strike, the highest number of Palestinians injured by Israeli forces in the West Bank was recorded since the beginning of 2017, with 191 injured, including 45 minors (OCHA figures). The vast majority of them were injured during solidarity protests with the hunger strike, and about a tenth were injured from live bullets.
Within the Green Line, as well, a number of protest vigils were organised locally and a solidarity tent was set up in Umm al-Fahm. Solidarity demonstrations have been held in several countries around the world, and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), of which the Histadrut (Israeli trade union organisation) is affiliated, published a solidarity statement.
As usual, the Israeli government and the tops of IPS declare that they allegedly are not moved by the protests and have no intention to negotiate with the prisoners. In a number of cases in recent years, the state, under the Netanyahu governments, was prepared to bring hunger striking prisoners to the brink of death before reaching an agreement. In the meantime, the IPS is working to punish the prisoners by psychological pressure, isolation, transfers between prisons, confiscation of clothing and personal equipment, and even the confiscation of salt used by the hunger strikers to improve their physical condition during the strike.
According to reports, negotiations between the prisoners and the IPS, nevertheless, took place during the weeks leading up to the strike, and if the strike intensifies, they will probably be renewed. It is possible that the Netanyahu government may be willing to try to push the line a bit further this time to demonstrate toughness against the demands of the prisoners, but they are playing with fire and may lose control over developments.
More protest actions, of Palestinians and Israelis, to support the hunger strike, represent a potential threat to Netanyahu’s fanatical right-wing government. Israeli demonstrators must stand alongside Palestinian demonstrators. And the Israel Medical Association is, on this issue, an example to other trade unions: it is necessary to rebel against draconian legislation and attacks by the right-wing government. The protests against forced feeding, discrimination in incarceration conditions and administrative detentions should help to build a stronger movement against the occupation and perpetuation of the national conflict, against the war on workers and poor, and for peace, equality and a socialist change.
Socialist Struggle Movement says:
- Support solidarity protests with the prisoners’ hunger strike. The Histadrut should back the solidarity statement of the ITUC, of which it is a member.
- No to torture of hunger strikers – no to forced-feeding! Repeal the Forced-Feeding Law. Workers’ organisations should back the Israeli Medical Association’s opposition to force feeding.
- End discrimination on the basis of nationality in conditions of imprisonment! Yes to supporting the basic demands of the prisoners to improve their conditions, including the right to telephone calls.
- End administrative detention! End arbitrary arrests and incarceration without trial. Protect the right of every prisoner to know the charges against him/her, to be represented by a lawyer and to have a fair trial.
- Get the military out of the territories! Abolish the military courts in the West Bank and end the occupation of the Palestinian territories and the settlements.
- Release all Palestinian political prisoners. Conduct fair trials, through a designated procedure, under the supervision of workers’ and independent human rights organisations, from both sides of the conflict, for Israelis and Palestinians suspected of responsibility for atrocities related to the conflict.
- For an independent, democratic and socialist Palestinian state alongside a democratic and socialist Israel, as part of the struggle for a socialist Middle East and regional peace.