Palestinians protesting Israeli administrative detention. (Photo: Reuters)
Now in its second week, a mass hunger strike is spreading across Israeli prisons with some 2,000 Palestinians protesting for their basic rights: an end to solitary confinement and imprisonment without charge, and access to education, media and family visits. And while prisoners in the Karameh (dignity) hunger strike have yet to achieve their goals, after 14 days without food, they have successfully mobilized Palestinian society and pressured Israeli authorities—in ways that are reminiscent of the first Intifada.
Known as the "battle of the empty stomachs," the open-ended strike began on April 17, 2012, Palestinian Prisoners' Day, with an initial 1,200 protestors. Within days the strike spread to other prisoners. Now the number of strikers has increased to over 2,000, with new groups joining daily. 105 Fatah affiliated prisoners held in Israel's Eshel detention facility are the latest group to announce their participation, which will begin tomorrow.
The sudden increase in protesting Palestinian prisoners is also accompanied by hunger striking Egyptians who are held in Israeli detention. Last Friday 40 of the 63 imprisoned Egyptians joined the protest to demand their release, which was planned to take place that same day. However, after negotiations between Egypt and Israel on a gas pipeline failed, Israel punitively canceled the prisoner release, inciting the protest.
The broad base nature of this hunger strike, coupled with Palestinians outside of prison supporting the protest with actions on the street, is similar to the hunger strikes used to galvanize the first Intifada. And with one out of five Palestinians spending time in Israel's prisons—700,000 people since 1967—the mass incarceration of their society is an issue that effects all classes of Palestinians.
A protester climbs on top of an Israeli "skunk truck" during a protest outside
Ofer prison, May 1, 2012. (Photo: Abir Kopty)
In 1987, one of the initial events of the first Intifada was the Juneid prison hunger strike, where 3,000 Palestinians were without food for 20 days. Then again in 1992, 7,000 went on hunger strike for 15 days. Similar to the first intifada, today's hunger strike is marked by the coordination between Palestinians inside and outside of Israel's prisons. This can be seen in the street demonstrations, particularly in Gaza, and the upcoming May 1st and May 3rd calls to action, where Palestinians will protest outside of the Ramleh prison medical clinic.
Additionally, like the hunger strikes during the Intifada, the prisoners have been able to leverage their cause against the Israeli authorities. During the Intifada prisoners were able to negotiate the release of prisoners and improve conditions. In today's strike, the Israeli authorities have already released hunger striker, Ahmed Saqer, and offered to meet some of the prisoners' conditions. Israeli officials even offered to release from solitary the imprisoned Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader, Ahmed Sa'adat, who is serving multiple life sentences. Sa'adat is also one of the thousands currently on strike. Last week, he wrote the following letter to his family, describing the protest as a joint action of all of the different political factions:
Dearest Umm Ghassan, and all my loved ones;
Ghassan, Amal, Iba, Loay, Sumoud, Yassar, and my whole family;
Do not worry, my health is much better than in the previous hunger strike, and I am confident it will remain so. Thank you for your continual support to my position in this hunger strike. As is the case in every strike, they took all of our electrical appliances, canteen, clothing…we only have left prison clothes, some change of underwear, pajamas, towels, soap and toothpaste.
All of us have lost about 5-7 kilograms in weight, but everyone is in good health and most importantly, high morale, and are determined to continue the strike. We are confident of victory, relying on the justice of our cause and our demands, and the support of the masses of our people, our nation, and the free world – individuals, organizations and institutions – standing, as always alongside our just struggle.
These demands include a number of legitimate human rights under international law, including abolition of solitary confinement as a dangerous form of torture with no security or legal justification and contrary to international humanitarian law and all international conventions that prohibit torture. We are also demanding an end to the prohibition of family visits to the prisoners from Gaza for more than seven years, as well as interference with family visitors from the West Bank under the pretext of ‘security reasons’, and demanding that such visits be allowed for extended as well as immediate family.
What we need from the masses of the people, political forces and institutions is to raise the voices and the call of our just demands of the prisoners with a unified voice, and not subject the cause of the prisoners to internal disputes or the management of division.
This strike includes participation from all political forces and factions, without exception, and the best gift from the political forces supporting us is to implement agreements for unity, on which the ink is not yet dry. Such unity is an essential foundation, the most important pillar to achieve our just national goals.
In conclusion, I salute and thank all of the Palestinian, Arab and international forces standing beside our just struggle.
Forward to victory!
April 24, 2012
Eighth day of hunger strike
Nevertheless, Palestinians rejected the deal to release Sa'adat and are continuing to strike until their full demands are met. "We swear to continue to strike until our demands are met, no matter what the cost. We believe in our right to a dignified life even if we fall as martyrs," said a leadership committee for the hunger strikers in a April 28, 2012 statement. And until then, the prisoners will continue to endure new punishments. "We are confronted by torture and abuse on a daily basis, around the clock, in an attempt to force all of the hunger strikers to break the strike." These measures include daily raids by Israeli prison "special forces," transfers to other prisons, fines of 250-500 Shekels per day.