As US president Donald Trump arrived in Israel on May 22, Palestinians declared a “day of rage” to protest his visit, and called on people around the world to participate in a one-day hunger strike in solidarity with over 1300 striking Palestinian prisoners, who have been subsisting on nothing but salt water since they declared an open-ended Dignity Strike on April 17.
The demands of the prisoners are basic, like most Palestinian demands, and include access to telephone landlines, increased and longer family visits, better medical care, an end to administrative detention, access to the Hebrew Open University, and the right for imprisoned high schoolers to take end-of-year exams. Family visits are a particularly difficult issue: the fact that Palestinian prisoners are jailed inside Israel, in contravention of international law, which forbids the transfer of members of an occupied people outside of their country, makes it necessary for Palestinian family members to apply for permits to visit their imprisoned relatives in Israel. These permits are regularly denied, and when granted, make for difficult, costly, and long journeys for the visitors, who are then only allowed minutes with their loved ones
But “rights are not bestowed by the oppressor,” as strike leader Marwan Barghouti said in his eloquent OpEd, echoing American abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ “Power concedes nothing without a demand. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
It is noteworthy indeed that practically every single demand the Palestinian people have made since the 1948 Nakba is a demand for respect of human rights and international law. Even the demands of the BDS campaign, that supposed “existential threat” to Israel, are far from radical: an end to the occupation (which happens to be illegal), dismantling the apartheid and annexation wall (which was declared illegal in 2004 by the International Court of Justice), the refugees’ right of return (a right regularly reaffirmed at the United Nations), and for Israel to treat all its citizens equally. The fact that justice and respect for the law and the basic human rights of all citizens are considered existential threats to a country proves that such a country is founded on injustice.
The sign I made, to go with my own video, as I took the salt water challenge last week, said “Our chains will be broken before we are,” an affirmation I borrowed from Marwan Barghouti’s powerful statement: “What is it with the arrogance of the occupier and the oppressor and their backers that makes them deaf to this simple truth: Our chains will be broken before we are, because it is human nature to heed the call for freedom regardless of the cost.” The line struck me as both beautiful and extremely timely, considering Trump’s visit to the region, and his advisers’ suggestion that there will only be a solution to the question of Palestine once Israel breaks our spirit and “imposes its will” on the Palestinians.
As the defiant Palestinian prisoners continue their strike, let us look at history. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 long years. But the longest serving political prisoner is a Palestinian, Nael Barghouti, who has been imprisoned since 1978, meaning for 39 years so far, with no hope of freedom in sight. The “record holder” before Nael Barghouti is another Palestinian, Said Al-Arabah, who served over 31 years. Political prisoners, it must be noted, have committed no crime. They are not serving a sentence for a legal offense unless being Palestinian is a crime. Many are intellectuals, artists, writers, whose opinions Israel cannot abide.
Mahatma Gandhi’s hunger strike lasted 21 days, our prisoners have been striking for six weeks. The siege on Gaza has been going on for over 10 years, the Warsaw siege lasted four years.
The strike began on April 17, a date which has been declared “Prisoners day,” in acknowledgment that doing prison time is a rite of passage for Palestinians of all walks of life, with 40 percent of all Palestinians men in the occupied West Bank having been behind bars at least once. Of course, as Ramzy Baroud points out, the Israeli jails themselves are “prisons within larger prisons.” And the siege on the Gaza Strip renders the entire area an open-air prison.
And still some people ask us: where is your Nelson Mandela, where is your Gandhi? We have too many Mandelas, we have thousands of Gandhis.
Speaking shortly before Trump’s arrival, Alaa Tartir, program director at the Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka, explained that Israel had hoped to quash the strike before Trump’s arrival. “One of Israel’s priorities now, as Trump’s visit looms, is to end this hunger strike and squash solidarity with the hunger strikers in the streets of the occupied West Bank,” Tartir said, adding that “to achieve these goals, using violent measures and repressing techniques is the panacea for Israel.” And so, the cycle of Israeli violence and Palestinian resistance continues, as the politicians engage in another round of charade negotiations.
Throughout history, change for the better has not come from those in official power, but from the grassroots, the oppressed, those at the receiving end of injustice, those whose starving, ailing bodies are on the line. As people around the world show their support for the imprisoned Palestinians, we are sending one clear message: no power can break us. The solidarity is global. And the people fully understand that the solution to the question of Palestine can only happen with justice. Our “challenge,” then, is to keep pushing this issue forward, as the media prefer to focus on presidents who do not represent the will of the people, but the interests of tyrants.