A record number of Palestinian prisoners began a hunger strike to coincide with Palestinian Prisoners’ Day on April 16.
More than 1500 prisoners are taking part in the largest mass hunger strike in recent years. Marwan Barghouti, sentenced by Israel to five life sentences, is leading a renewed campaign to draw attention to the conditions Palestinian prisoners face.
It also aims to highlight the oppressive nature of Israel’s colonial occupation that makes arrests of Palestinian people all but inevitable.
What makes this hunger strike different is the broad support from prisoners from a wide range of political backgrounds, including Fatah and Hamas.
Barghouti, a member of Fatah, is the spokesperson of a new movement calling for “freedom and dignity”. There is the real possibility of securing broad support from outside Palestine for the prisoners’ immediate demands and the bigger questions of why there are so many Palestinian political prisoners at all.
The strike has spread from the Hadarim, Gilboa and Nafha prisons to the Beersheva, Ashkelon and Ramon prisons, with more expected to join.
In an unusual step, mainstream media outlets in the US have published op-eds from Bargouti where he explains the reasons for the hunger strike. This is sure to upset pro-Israel lobbyists, but could mean that the popular discourse on Palestine is starting to change.
Hunger strikes are not a new form of protest for Palestinian political prisoners, but this latest strike calls attention to the prison-like conditions that all Palestinian communities endure on a daily and seemingly never ending basis.
Of the 6500 prisoners held by Israel there are a significant number of “administrative detainees” (being held without charge) and children. Conditions for political prisoners are deliberately poor.
Torture is common, denial of or delayed medical treatment is the norm, solitary confinement is an everyday punishment, force-feeding of hunger strikers is a given and no access to family visits is routine. These tactics combine with the ever present occupation to bring an extraordinary amount of pressure to bear on all Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.
Whether prisoners’ demand for an end to torture, for medical care, an end to restrictions on visits or the use of solitary confinement are met remains to be seen. But this campaign is reaching a far wider audience than past campaigns.
Behind the sheer number Palestinian prisoners, the transfer of Palestinian prisoners to Israeli prisons is illegal.
Though reports vary, it is clear the Israeli Prison Service is already carrying out severe punishments against many of the 1500 hunger strikers.
This is made worse by the controversial practice of “administrative detention”, meaning Palestinian prisoners can be held without charge indefinitely. Prisoners are arrested by the Israeli military on secret evidence they are prevented from seeing, held without charge and denied access to lawyers.
To date, the longest period of time spent under administrative detention is eight years. The six-monthly review that takes place for detainees in reality means indefinite insecurity and imprisonment.
Palestinian children are frequently arrested by Israeli soldiers and make up a disturbing number of political prisoners. There are now about 300 Palestinian children held in Israeli prisons. That number is set to grow with the passage of laws that mean simple acts of protest, such as throwing stones, could attract prison sentences of up to 20 years.
About 1 million Palestinian prisoners have been detained by Israel since 1948. Rates of arrest seem unlikely to fall anytime soon.
The Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike are using almost the only tactic left to them to make sure that the fate of Palestinians doesn’t go away or get ignored.