MORE than 1500 Palestinian political prisoners incarcerated for years in high security Israeli jails have been on an indefinite hunger strike from April 17. The date is observed every year as “Prisoners Day” by Palestinians in the occupied territories and Israel. More than 6500 Palestinian prisoners, including an estimated 300 children, are languishing in Israeli jails, living under bleak conditions. The Israeli government has passed a law which allows for the arrest of children aged 12 and above for “terrorist offenses”. Around 550 Palestinians are in jail without even being put through the charade of a court appearance. They are held under what the Israeli government calls “administrative detention”. This also allows the government to detain Palestinians without any charges being filed against them. Scrapping of the policy of “administrative detention” is one of the major demands of the striking prisoners. Administrative detainees are arrested on the basis of “secret evidence”. They are never told of the evidence the State has gathered against them.
Around 200 prisoners have been in Israeli jails before the signing of the 1993 Oslo accords. Some of the Palestinian prisoners now figure in the list of prisoners who have spent the longest time in prison worldwide. Karim Younis and Mahir Younis have been in an Israeli prison since 1984. Many prisoners have lost close relatives without being able to see them in their last days. Some were even denied permission to talk to their dying parents. The hunger strike coincided with the 50th anniversary of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the 100th anniversary of the inglorious Balfour Declaration which had laid the groundwork for the Jewish takeover of their land and the subsequent Palestinian “naqba” (catastrophe). The Balfour Declaration had allowed the Jews to come and take over the Palestinian heartland.
Under international law, Palestinian prisoners must be held in the occupied territories not in the territory of the occupying power, as is being done now. It is very difficult for immediate relatives to visit prisoners in Israel proper because of the travel restrictions imposed on Palestinian population in the occupied territories by the Jewish State. Human rights groups have described this as a violation of the Geneva convention and being unlawful as well as cruel. “Instead of unlawfully transferring Palestinians outside the occupied territories, Israel must ensure that all Palestinians arrested there must be held in prisons and detention centers in the Occupied Palestinian territories. Until then, the Israelis must stop imposing excessive restrictions on visitation rights as a means of punishing prisoners and their families, and ensure that conditions fully meet international standards”, a statement from Amnesty International said. Amnesty has given the example of one Palestinian prisoner who though incarcerated for five and a half years was allowed to meet with his family only on one occasion.
The Palestinian hunger strikers had also wanted to bring to the notice of the international community the miserable conditions under which they have been living for years. By the second week of May, only a handful of prisoners for medical reasons had to give up their strike. Since 1967, more than 50 Palestinian prisoners have died due to medical negligence on the part of the Israeli jail authorities. Another 150 have died, according to the Palestinian Prisoners Club, because of inhuman treatment and torture. The last mass hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners was held in 2012. The strike ended after the Israeli authorities agreed to limit administrative detentions and end the practice of prolonged solitary detentions. The Israeli authorities had also agreed to allow visits of relatives of prisoners from Gaza. But since then, the Israeli authorities backtracked on most of their commitments.
The Israeli authorities are trying all kinds of dirty tricks to discredit the heroic strike that the Palestinian prisoners had undertaken. They first tried to portray it as a publicity stunt by the charismatic Palestinian leader, Marwan Barghouti, who is leading the hunger strikers. Barghouti, a Fatah leader, has been in an Israeli prison since 2002, having been sentenced to five life terms on the trumped up charges of being behind the deaths of five Israeli civilians during the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) of 2000. The Swiss based Inter-Parliamentary Union described his trial and conviction as “a violation of international law” and as a “failure to meet fair trial standards”.
Many Palestinians consider Barghouti, 58, the natural successor of President Mahmoud Abbas who is now 82. A succession battle is already on behind the scenes to succeed the aging Abbas. Opinion polls have shown that Palestinians prefer Barghouti by a wide margin to be their next leader. The Israelis have tried to portray the strike as a “political stunt” by Barghouti. As the Palestinian street coalesced in support of the jailed hunger strikers, the Israeli authorities tried to plant doctored pictures of Barghouti and some of his comrades snacking behind the prison walls.
“The aim of the strike”, Barghouti said, “is to achieve more humane, fair and more dignified prison conditions”. In an article which was smuggled out of prison, which appeared in many major world publications, Barghouti had clearly explained why he and his comrades are embarking on their indefinite hunger strike. “Israel has established a dual regime, a form of judicial apartheid, that provides virtual impunity for Israelis who commit crimes against Palestinians, while criminalising Palestinian presence and resistance”, he emphasised. Marches in support of Barghouti and the striking prisoners were held in all major Palestinian cities including Gaza. Hamas, a political rival of Fatah, which rules Gaza, is also supporting the hunger strikers. In the second week of May, a Palestinian was killed in the West Bank during a rally in support of the striking prisoners. The solidarity committee formed to support the striking prisoners has called on the Palestinian Authority (PA) to halt security cooperation with Israel and postpone the local body elections scheduled to be held in the middle of May.
Even as the condition of the prisoners worsened, Israel had for almost a month refused to negotiate with them on the issue of improving the living conditions in jail and increasing the number of family visits. Barghouti's wife, Fadhwa, worried about the deteriorating health condition of her husband and his fellow prisoners, has written a letter to Pope Francis in the second week of May. Baghouti's lawyer has not been allowed to visit him and he has been moved to solitary confinement by the Israeli authorities. “We are an entire nation held captive and the Palestinian prisoners are the most dramatic reflection of this long and horrific captivity”, Fadhwa wrote in her letter to the Pontiff. She sad that the Israeli authorities have responded to one of the most peaceful forms of protest by unleashing “a full fledged war” on the prisoners. Prison authorities are refusing permission to the fasting inmates to visit the commissary to buy essential necessities like salt. Those on fast are subsisting on water mixed with salt.
The Israeli defense minister, Avignor Lieberman, has openly expressed the hope that the fasting prisoners all die or be executed. A week after the strike started, Israeli authorities targeted the leaders of the strike, confiscating their personal belongings and sent many to solitary confinement. Hospitals have been ordered to remain on standby to force feed the fasting prisoners. Both the World Medical Association and the United Nations consider force feeding a cruel and degrading punishment as well as violation of international law. Force feeding of Palestinian prisoners has led to deaths in the past. The Israeli Medical Association has also issued a statement saying that force feeding will be “never accepted ethically” as was stated in the World Medical Association's Malta Declaration. Human rights groups like the Physicians for Human Rights -Israel (PHR-I) say that the doctors who work for the Israeli Prison Services (IPS) are under qualified and having minimal medical qualifications. They have to follow the orders of the IPS.
Israeli authorities till the middle of May had refused to negotiate with the prisoners on any of the issues, including basic demands related to family visits and an end to the practice of solitary confinements. President Abbas, who was on an official visit to India, in the third week of May, has urged the Israeli government to comply with the “humanitarian” demands of the striking prisoners. He also urged the international community to support the prisoners and demand that Israel respect their rights and human dignity.
The International Campaign to Free Marwan Barghouti and all Palestinian political prisoners was launched in 2013 by the late anti-apartheid figure Ahmed Kathrada and Fadwa Barghouti in 2013 from Robben Island, where the notorious apartheid era prison in which Nelson Mandela and his comrades were incarcerated, is located. In the third week of May, leading South African politicians and cabinet members announced that they would undertake a one day fast in solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners. Activists in other parts of the world are also staging solidarity hunger strikes with the Palestinian prisoners. Students in many European universities have started relay hunger strikes in solidarity with the Palestinians.
The mass hunger strike finally ended after 41 days on the eve of Ramadan after the Israeli government finally acceded to some of the major demands of the striking prisoners. The Israeli authorities have agreed to allow family members to visit prisoners twice a month. This was one of the two major demands of the prisoners. The full details of the agreement have not been disclosed but the Palestinians have claimed a moral victory. It was after a long time that all the Palestinian groups stood as one in support of Barghouti and his fellow prisoners.