Shops closed in East Jerusalem for a general strike called to protest the death of a Palestinian prisoner, Wednesday April, 3, 2013. (Photo: Allison Deger/Mondoweiss)
One day after a Palestinian prisoner died of cancer, Palestinians on the street continued a two-day general strike, closing shops in East Jerusalem with light clashes breaking out by the Qalandia checkpoint. The demonstrations highlighted perceived medical neglect on the part of the Israeli prison authorities.
On the streets of the Old City in Jerusalem there were bolted metal doors for droves of storefronts to protest the death of Maysara Abu Hamdiyeh, a prisoner who succumbed to esophageal cancer on Tuesday. But while his death has sparked new unrest within Israeli jails and on the streets, it remains unlikely the protests will grow into anything larger.
Abu Hamdiyeh, a longtime Palestinian fighter affiliated with Fatah, was held first at Ramon Prison and then Eshel Prison–jails within Israel, a brazen violation of international law. He died while at Soroka hospital in Be’er Sheva after being admitted in late March, despite weeks of his health conditions worsening. His supporters and his family have accused the Israeli authorities of neglecting medical treatment for his cancer. Abu Hamdiyeh’s lawyer told Ma’an News that he was first given only painkillers, and then antibiotics, for weeks before his cancerous condition deteriorated.
Within hours of Abu Hamdieyh’s passing, around 50 demonstrators gathered in front of Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem, the typical site for protest against the Israeli occupation. Days ago another similar demonstration took place for Land Day, an annual commemoration over the death of six protesting a land grab in the Galilee in the 1970s. Like most protests that skirt the Old City, police snatch squads arrested 11 demonstrators, including one medic and one journalist. Muath Khatib, a journalist for Watan TV, said an Israeli police officer dislocated the shoulder of another media worker while making arrests in the crowded limestone plaza in front of the entrance to the Old City.
Abu Hamdiyeh’s death also sparked demonstrations within the walls of Israeli prisons. A three-day hunger strike was called by Palestinian prisoners over his death. And rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel, reportedly in response to the prisoner’s death. Israeli airstrikes on the Strip were launched in response.
But by Wednesday the crowds on the streets of Palestine had dissipated. Since the end of the Second Intifada, there have been noteworthy spikes in Palestinians’ political activity, but most dissipate as quickly as they start. Still, prisoners touch at the heart of nearly every Palestinian, with an estimated 800,000 Palestinians incarcerated by Israel since the 1967 War, according to the prisoner rights organization Addameer. The fact that Palestinian prisoners, which Abu Hamdiyeh personified, touch a wide swath of society explains why the clashes over his lack of health care while incarcerated has the ability to mobilize as many people in the West Bank as Land Day did.
By the time Mondoweiss arrived at the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) on Wednesday one hour after a demonstration was called for, no one protesting was on site. “There was no demonstration,” said an employee of the ICRC whose work was not interrupted by the soft displays of discontent. Outside, a few meters away in a playground, children romped around with one police jeep parked nearby.
Abu Hamdiyeh’s death comes at a time when the prisoner issue remains a potent source of anger at the Israeli authorities. Unrest erupted in the occupied West Bank in February after another prisoner, Arafat Jaradat, died in jail. An autopsy report prepared by Dr. Saber Al Aloul of the Palestinian Medico-Legal Institute claimed that Israeli authorities tortured Jaradat to death, though Israel denies the charge.
While Jaradat’s death in jail led to protests, they petered out, and it’s likely that the same will happen in the days after Abu Hamdiyeh’s death.
Palestinian society remains divided, with no leadership or direction to direct anger into a sustained uprising, despite Israeli warnings of a Third Intifada and Hamas’ calls for a renewed one. In addition to Israeli crackdowns on popular dissent, the ongoing rift between Fatah and Hamas has contributed to the lack of sustained mobilization. There’s also the fact that Palestinian society is exhausted after the devastating response Israel inflicted after the outbreak of the Second Intifada. And perhaps the most important reason why a Third Intifada is not coming anytime soon is the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Lavished with Western aid and training for its security forces, the PA is the number one obstacle between the Palestinian street and Israel. The PA has likewise cracked down on both armed fighters and peaceful dissent within the areas they control, in part in return for the continued flow of Western money.
But a paradox of Palestinian life is that the same PA that prevents threatening resistance directed at Israel is the same authority that provides many Palestinians with their livelihoods. Some Palestinian protesters who voice outrage at Israel are the same people who make a living off of being in the PA security forces. For instance, an estimated two-thirds of those in Nabi Saleh, a village at the forefront of resisting Israeli settlements and the occupation, rely on the PA’s salaries. One protester in the village who was killed by Israeli forces, Rushdi Tamimi, was a PA-employed police officer. And Abu Hamdiyeh himself was a member of the Palestinian Authority’s Preventive Security Force before being thrown in jail for allegedly being involved in terrorism.
In response to Abu Hamdiyeh’s death, the Palestinian Authority lashed out at Israel. “The death of Maysara Abu Hamdiyeh shows the Israeli government’s arrogance and intransigence over the prisoners,” said PA President Mahmoud Abbas. “We tried to get him released for treatment but the Israeli government refused to let him out, which led to his death.”
But Abu Hamdiyeh’s son has in turn expressed anger at the PA. “Maysara is not an issue of a prisoner or a sick person. Maysara is the issue of a government and an authority that day and night say ‘we are helpless — an authority helpless in front of every national topic,” said Tariq Abuhamdia, Maysara’s son who is studing in the U.S., in a message published by the Electronic Intifada’s Linah Alsaafin. “Suddenly this leadership stops being helpless, when it comes to beating up people. Our state is incapable of liberating one prisoner, but it was not helpless to beat me up for being in one demonstration for Gaza.”
Abu Hamdiyeh’s death has led to outrage on the streets and international headlines. His funeral Thursday will also likely bring further demonstrations and clashes, but the situation is unlikely to go much further beyond that. The relatively small protests are only the latest indication of a society that remains battered and beaten-down over a grinding occupation with no end in sight. And the Palestinian leadership has shown no signs of trying to fundamentally alter the status quo.