As President Trump prepares his visit to Israel next week, tens of Palestinian prisoners are hospitalized with their health in serious decline as they continue their 34th day of the Freedom and Dignity Hunger Strike. To put that record in its historical context, Mahatma Ghandi’s fast ended on the 21st day.
As one revisits the initial Israeli responses to the launching of the hunger strike, one is reminded of the power that lies in the frail human body to shake the world by the shoulders. Today, on the 34th day of this historic mass resistance to the settler-colonial machine, I would like to celebrate that power insofar as it can be celebrated.
The Israeli government’s first public reaction to the hunger-strike was for its Ministry of Foreign Affairs to issue a statement declaring: “The Palestinian prisoners are not political prisoners. They are convicted terrorists and murders. They were brought to justice and are treated properly under international law.” The policy was clear from the outset: deflect the prisoners’ demands by delegitimizing the resistance through blanketly casting all prisoners as terrorists and murders, further pushing for a false, depoliticized narrative.
In reality, every Palestinian prisoner is a political prisoner, for every Palestinian is a political entity.
The Palestinians living in the West Bank are subject to the full brunt of the force of the apartheid system: one which is already a product of a political power disparity created by and favoring the Israeli by criminalizing and marginalizing the Palestinian in its enforcement. The West Bank itself is a prison with the apartheid wall demarcating the confines of the cell. And then there is the Gaza Strip: besieged, ghettoized and bombarded, controlled from every side of the border by Israel and its Egyptian ally – an open air prison.
Whether in exile, in the occupied territories, or in cleansed lands, the Palestinian is a captive of the Israeli political machine. There is no escape on either side of the cell, and there is nowhere a Palestinian can exist as a non-political entity, let alone in Israeli prison.
Inside the cell, the Palestinian prisoner has little to no agency. The decision to go on an indefinite hunger strike until one’s rights are restored is the decision to assert what little control one has over one’s body in demand of those rights. This is especially true when no other expression of desperation and injustice moves the oppressor.
The choice to be hungry is the choice to be under the torture of one’s own resistance to this universal biological need. It is, as Elaine Scarry describes in her book The Body in Pain, one more act of self-betrayal that the prisoner is forced to make in hopes to reclaim one’s agency where there is none. It is one more act of self-torture that one sacrifices for the reclamation of freedom and dignity.
The hunger strike is then the reclamation of the body which has been stolen by Israel and confined to a cell-block; the re-assumption of a subjectivity temporarily abducted by military might; a revival of humanity. The hunger strike may be a peaceful reclamation, but it is not non-violent. The violence is simply subdued, transformed into a perpetual struggle between the prisoner and the prisoner’s body. It is a battle: a form of torture that the prisoner inflicts on themselves in a symbolic, but also literal, redemption of agency. It is indeed the body where the Palestinian prisoner finds freedom within the confines of the cell in the larger context of occupation, retrieving the one thing the occupier may never access: Palestinian dignity.
Saed Omar wrote eloquently in the seventh issue of The Outpost magazine on his own imprisonment, “the true prisoner is the one holding the stick and the keys, who cannot sleep because he is afraid that you will run away.” A comical caricature comes to mind: a fully armed cadre of Israeli soldiers, guards and analysts, Kalashnikovs in one arm, drone technology in the other, the most sophisticated military advancements at the discretion of their fingertips, all huddled in tens around a computer screen, watching intently a grainy surveillance footage of Marwan Barghouti solitarily confined in his cell, licking their lips at the thought of him succumbing to their perverse temptations.
Barghouti’s thoughts echo more resoundingly than ever: “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.”
That is the power of the hunger strike. The settler becomes the prisoner. The Palestinian becomes the subject. And sophisticated weaponry is at once replaced by a candy bar.