Khader Adnan and hunger strikers in the lobby of the ICRC, al-Bireh, Monday 18 February 2013.
"I consider myself a sample of what happens on a hunger strike," said Khader Adnan, one of the West Bank's most revered former administrative detainees, from a mattress on the lobby floor of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) office in Ramallah. To this, his visitors in the small waiting room erupt in laughter. Adnan and four others are in the eleventh day of fasting and camping inside the Red Cross office in protest against Israeli imprisonment of Palestinians. In response to the protest the ICRC shut its headquarters a week ago and relocated operations in Jericho.
Nafar Halabi speaking to his mother,
Alexandra Halabi in the lobby of the ICRC.
"When they see me and my friends here on strike it’s more visual for people," said Adnan. "It's a message to the international world and the international community that their silence is killing us," he continued with his voice growing raspy, a sign of his physical duress despite the jovial mood in the waiting room. Fifteen others sat on benches that lined the wall with an additional 20 in a spillover waiting room. Adnan was cheerful, his face the most expressive of the group. As hours pass newcomers enter in groups of two and three, mostly students from Birzeit University, and just about all of them have come every day since the Red Cross protest began on Monday, February 11, 2013.
Hunger strikers with visitors in the ICRC lobby.
"The ones without jobs come from the morning to the evening and the ones with jobs come in the evening," said Mohammed Kazam, an accountant for Coca-Cola who stopped by after he finished work. For Kazam, Adnan is "the man that makes us know about the prisoners on hunger strike." Indeed for many of those who came to see Adnan, whom they addressed as Sheikh Khader, this was their first time witnessing a political fast.
Demonstration supporting Palestinian prisoners in al-Bireh, 18 February 2013.
Adnan and the other ICRC demonstrators are keen on drawing support to Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike inside Israeli jails, specifically Samer Issawi and Ayman Sharawna. As of today, Issawi has been on hunger strike for 213 days and Sharawna has been on strike for 227. Adnan's solidarity protest has inspired a wave of daily demonstrations across the West Bank, and on Wednesday a protest tent was even established inside Israel in Nazareth. In Ramallah, every morning around 11 am a crowd of around 200 gathers at the ICRC to march to al-Manara Square. The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a secular communist Palestinian political party has spearheaded a number of the protests. Demonstrations have also been held outside of Ofer prison, the location of Israel’s military court where administrative detainees are brought to trial.
Adnan's unorthodox form of hunger strike rose the profile of Issawi in particular who was arrested last July. Despite the staggering longevity of Issawi's protest he has yet to capture headlines similar to the most famed Palestinian protesters of 2012: Khader Adnan who fasted for 66 days and Hana Shalabi who went without food for 43 days before being transferred to the Gaza Strip in an deal for her release.
Adnan and Shalabi were both able to leverage their protest into an agreement with the Israeli authorities for release. But Issawi recently had an appeal for release denied and his brother, Shadi Issawi, was arrested last Sunday, possibly indicating Israeli officials do not intend on dropping their case. Samer Issawi is next scheduled to see a military judge on March 1.
"The Red Cross is responsible for giving services to Palestinian prisoners and facilitate the family visits," said Adnan discussing the aid organization's mandate. But the ICRC "didn't visit the strikers, didn't pass messages to the families. Instead they closed their office and went to Jericho," said Adnan.
Because the ICRC relocated to Jericho relatives of prisoners are now in a bind when applying for family visit permits. Alexandra Halabi, the mother of Nafar Halabi, one of the hunger strikers in the lobby, said she has three other sons that are in Israeli prisons. "This is the problem for us, for the mothers of the prisoners," said Halabi. She was supposed to visit one of her sons in prison on Thursday, but because the ICRC is closed she cannot obtain the required permit.
Halabi's youngest son Nasser was arrested at her home during a 2009 night raid. One week later her middle son, Rami, was arrested in order to pressure Nasser into a confession. At the time the military ransacked Halabi’s house. "They destroyed everything in the home. They took the laptop, phone, telephone—many telephones—and money also," she lamented, describing how the soldiers forced her and her family into one room while in another, they packed up items that were never returned.
Nafar Halabi (left) with Alexandra Halabi.
Two years later Nasser was released and then enrolled in Bethlehem University. But after only a glimpse of normal adulthood, he was rearrested seven months later. The pattern of arrest without charge, release and then re-arrest has ripped the late-teens and early twenties from all of Halabi's sons. Nafar, who is on hunger strike in the ICRC, has only been out of prison for less than a year. Last Saturday when he heard about Adnan's protest he told his mother he wanted to join. She gathered a matching leopard print mattress and blanket, a pillow, and then dropped him off at the Red Cross. Now her and her husband come every day to support "the boys who live here [in the Red Cross lobby] now," with Halabi staying upwards to eight hours at a time. "They decided," she said, to continue an open-ended hunger strike "until Samer Issawi will be free."
All photographs are by the author.