Palestine: Mass hunger strike defies Israel, prisoners being left to die

May 12, 2012

Six Palestinians on hunger strike against their illegal long-term detention without trial in Israeli jails were close to death on May 8, the International Committee of the Red Cross said that day. Two of the six, Tha’er Halahleh, 33, and Bilal Diab, 27, had, by May 12, been on hunger strike for 75 days.

The other four prisoners had been on hunger strike for between 51 and 68 days on May 12.

By comparison, the 10 Irish political prisoners who died during the 1981 hunger strike in a British-run jail succumbed after between 46 and 73 days without food. It is possible that some of the Palestinian hunger strikers will be dead by the time Green Left Weekly goes to press on May 13.

NBC reported on May 11 that Israeli government spokesperson Mark Regev said: “The leaders of this strike are people who’ve been directly responsible for brutal acts of terror against innocent civilians, people who have blown up people in pizza parlours, in coffee shops, on school buses.”

This lie is transparent. All six are in “administrative detention”, which means they are in jail despite not having been charged, let alone convicted, of any crime.

In fact, they are on hunger strike to demand they be put on trial or released.

In February, Palestinian prisoner Khader Adnan ended a 66-day hunger strike after Israeli authorities agreed to release him from administrative detention last month. Hana Shalabi was also released from administrative detention in April — and sent to the Gaza Strip — after she had refused food for more than 40 days.

However, as more prisoners in administrative detention went on hunger strike, the Israeli authorities became more intransigent. On April 17, Palestinian Prisoners Day, thousands more political prisoners joined the hunger strike.

Hunger-striking prisoners have been held in solitary confinement, denied family visits and adequate medical and legal assistance.

The May 7 Sydney Morning Herald said: “The number of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails has grown to at least 2800, human rights groups say …

“The Israeli prison service disputes the numbers … A spokeswoman said 1600 prisoners are refusing food.”

Palestinian prisoner support group Addameer reported: “As of 1 May 2012, there were 4,653 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons and detention centres, including … 218 children.”

Of these, 308 are in administrative detention.

That the majority of prisoners are not in administrative detention does not mean they have been accorded due legal process. Under the apartheid legal system operating since Israel occupied those parts of Palestine that it failed to occupy in 1948 — the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza — Palestinians in these territories have been subject to an arbitrary system of military law.

Military orders criminalise organising or taking part in protests, assemblies or vigils, waving flags, displaying political symbols, printing and distributing political material and chanting slogans.

Any activity that demonstrates sympathy for an organisation deemed illegal under military orders is prohibited.

Military trials are heard by army officers often without adequate legal training. The system of military law also denies protection to children that exists under Israeli civil law.

Not only are children tried as adults but, like adult prisoners, they can be subjected to up to 188 days unsupervised interrogation by military or intelligence personnel.

Addameer reported: “Approximately 700 Palestinian children under the age of 18 from the occupied West Bank are prosecuted every year through Israeli military courts after being arrested, interrogated and detained by the Israeli army.

“The most common charge levied against children is throwing stones, a crime that is punishable under military law by up to 20 years in prison. Since 2000, more than 8000 Palestinian children have been detained.”

Torture and prisoner abuse are common.

Addameer described as routine “sleep deprivation by means of continuous and prolonged interrogation sessions, excessive use of handcuffs for extensive periods and their tightening to cut off circulation; beatings; slapping; kicking; verbal abuse and intentional humiliation; and the use of threats directed at the detainee or a family member, including threats of arrest of a family member, threats of sexual assault against the detainee or his/her family member, threats of house demolitions, and threats of killing”.

Underlining the apartheid nature of the military law system, Israeli settlers living in the West Bank (illegally under international law) are subject to Israeli civil law rather than the military courts.

The response from Western governments to the hunger strike has been predictably underwhelming. It was not until May 9 that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon finally called for the prisoners in administrative detention to be put on trial or released.

In contrast, there have been worldwide actions in solidarity. On May 9, Football Beyond Borders called for a boycott of the Union of European Football Associations’ (UEFA) 2013 Under-21 European Championships, to be hosted by Israel.

It published an open letter in solidarity with Mahmoud Sarsak, a member of the Palestinian national football team who has been held in administrative detention since July 2009. He was arrested at the Erez checkpoint leaving Gaza to join the Palestinian team in the West Bank, despite having been issued a permit.

He has been on hunger strike since March 24.

In Palestine, there have been widespread protests, sit-ins and solidarity hunger strikes.

Most of these have taken place in the West Bank and Gaza, but there have also been protests in the part of Palestine occupied by Israel since 1948. On May 3, 17 activists were violently arrested at a peaceful protest near Ramle prison where some of the hunger strikers are being held.

One of those arrested, Thaira Zoabi, told Electronic Intifada on May 11: “The Israeli forces used [taser guns] and I have bruises on my arms and legs. I saw them open a protester’s mouth by force and spit in it, and they spit in my face as well.

“They beat us and used massive verbal violence. They did a full body search.

“While being under custody, a police officer of Ramle district addressed both me and another female activist while being cuffed with verbal sexual harassment, threatening to rape us. I have to admit I burst in to tears.”

In the West Bank, protesters have expressed anger at the weak stance taken by the Palestinian Authority (PA), led by Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas.

Reflecting his commitment to a “peace process” that has allowed Israel to consolidate its occupation, massively increase illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and make the PA responsible for policing Palestinian opposition to Israel, Abbas has fretted that if the hunger strikers start dying this could cause a “third intifada” (uprising).

On May 10, Abbas was confronted by protesters holding signs saying “President Abbas said ‘We want peace not a third intifada’; The people want an intifada not peace,” Electronic Intifada reported on May 11.

“One popular chant in the daily protests that have swept Ramallah in the last two weeks goes: ‘Those calling for peace will tomorrow write on the walls they regret they did so’,” the site said.

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