“When I saw the last video of Al-Qeq, I teared up, because I saw myself, I was in his shoes, I experienced his struggle, and I felt his pain.” This was ex-hunger striker Ayman Sharawna’s response when I interviewed him for We Are Not Numbers about how he felt about Muhammed Al-Qeq’s hunger strike. [Al-Qeq’s name is transliterated as al-Qiq and al-Qeeq, including in posts on this site]
Today, the Palestinian journalist is in the 86th day of his hunger strike. Israeli forces arrested Al-Qeq from his home on November 21 and put him under the notorious “administrative detention.” The father of two and journalist for Almajd TV started his hunger strike four days later, protesting his imprisonment without charge or trial, as well as the psychological and physical torture he faced during interrogation.
Following the Irish footsteps
While Sharawna engaged in the same battle, he noted that Al-Qeq’s situation is more perilous. Unlike Sharawna, Samir Issawi and Khader Adnan (other well-publicized Palestinian prisoners who resorted to a hunger strike), Al-Qeq refuses to take any vitamins or even drink water with salt—the dramatic strategy adopted by the Irish in 1981.
This is why, despite Sharawna’s hunger strike of more than 200 days, Al-Qeq’s health was at a critical point at “just” 85 days. “Al-Qeq is at the point of no return,” Sharawna said. “Even if he is freed, he will no longer function as a normal human being.” Last week, Al-Qeq, weighing only 30 kg (66 pounds), lost his ability to speak and his sight and hearing are damaged.
Why, then, do Palestinian prisoners engage in such a risky battle, using their own bodies to protest?
Ayman Sharawna was imprisoned for 10 years and was released as part of the deal negotiated in 2011 to free Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. A year later, he was arrested again and put under administrative detention. He said that his time in administrative detention was worse than being imprisoned for 10 years. “At the end of the 10-year sentence, you know you will be freed. But under administrative detention, when you finish the six-month sentence, you don’t know if you’re going home or if your detention will be extended. And it is likely to be extended,” he said. “You don’t even know why you are in prison!”
This mental torture leaves prisoners with no options but to protest with the only thing that they can control: their bodies.
“You have to understand something,” Sharawna emphasized. “A prisoner does not engage in a hunger strike unless he has lost all hope in any other method…hunger striking is the last resort of a prisoner.”
Jonathan Hafetz, an associate professor of law at Seton Hall University, whose work is mainly on the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay, agrees. In an article he wrote two years ago, he said, “The reality is that hunger strikes… have an unparalleled ability to focus the world’s attention on the ongoing plight of men whose situation is so desperate they would rather starve themselves than go on living in legal limbo.”
Although Israel passed a controversial new law allowing the force-feeding of hunger strikers if their health critically deteriorated, Al-Qeq has not been force-fed. However, 972 Magazine reported that, earlier this month, the Israeli medical team put enormous pressure on Al-Qeq to take in liquid food intravenously, until his attorney demanded they stop.
As I was conducting the interview, Sharawna’s phone rang. Someone on the other end communicated the news that the Israeli Supreme Court had rejected Al-Qeq’s appeal to move to a Palestinian hospital in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, out of the Israeli institution where he is being held. Sharawna shook his head in dismay. “The court decision is a death sentence. Israel wants to execute Al-Qeq,” he said. “They’d rather have him dead than free.”
Hungry for freedom
Earlier this month, Fayha Shalash, Al-Qeq’s wife, spoke with Al Jazeera. She said Al-Qeq’s struggle is not a personal one, but rather a battle for Palestine and for freedom. “He sent a message to Palestinian journalists from prison, saying that freedom is not something given to you by your position or authority. It comes from your stance. His refusal of administrative detention is how he is taking a stance.”
In the past, Israel has negotiated in cases of Palestinian hunger strikers out of fear that a prisoner’s death could spark unrest in the occupied Palestinian territories. However, upheaval is already widespread in the territories and has been for months. So, is Israel in a position in which it has nothing to lose if, God forbid, Al-Qeq dies?
Sharawna said yes; he argues that Israel knows that, right now, Gaza cannot handle another confrontation with Israel. In the West Bank, the uprising might intensify if the journalist dies; protests are likely to increase and confrontation with the Israeli occupation forces would be inevitable, resulting in the injury and death of a number of Palestinians. Still, such confrontations would not last long, and nothing dramatic would occur. Nevertheless, “the critical response, I believe, will be inside the Israeli prisons. Palestinian prisoners will not stand still, and certainly something dramatic will happen there.” Sharawna warned. “Many Palestinian prisoners are there for life, they have nothing to lose. I would not be surprised if some of them tried to kill Israeli officers in retaliation.”
International solidary, a key to liberty
Why won’t Israel release Al-Qeq? Sharawna believes that Al-Qeq does not enjoy the international solidarity that Khader Adnan received, in particular social-media solidarity. There are more immediate matters on the international agenda, like ISIS and the Syrian refugees’ crisis, which marginalized Al-Qeq case. Should the international solidarity increase, should Israel feel the pressure, Al-Qeq would be freed.
“My message to the international community, to the people reading your article, is to watch the last video released of Al-Qeq. Watch it, then have your conscience, have your humanity decide how you feel and what you want to do about this,” Shawarna ended.
According to Addameer, the prisoner support and human rights association, Israel currently holds 650 Palestinians under administrative detention, without charge or trial. Israel increased its use of administrative detention in the last few months as part of its effort to crack down on the ongoing uprising.