A hunger strike against Israel’s occupation

April 26, 2012

Israel's policy of administrative detention and its abuse of imprisoned Palestinians amounts to nothing short of torture, reports Daphna Thier.

NEARLY 1,600 Palestinians in Israeli prisons began an open-ended hunger strike on April 17, which was Palestinian Prisoners' Day. An additional 2,300 took part in a one-day hunger strike that day, meaning that over three-quarters of the 4,700 Palestinians held in Israel's jails refused food for at least 24 hours.

"The Palestinian detainees who are on hunger strike are protesting the treatment of prisoners inside Israeli prisons," Amani Sarahna, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Prisoners Association Club, told CNN. "They are protesting Israel's policy of administrative detention and solitary confinement for prisoners for months at a time. They are protesting the arbitrary fines imposed on prisoners by the Israeli authority, the prevention of family [visitations], especially of those from Gaza."

In solidarity with the hunger strikers, Palestinians took to the streets throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Some 3,000 Palestinians gathered in Nablus, 1,000 in Ramallah, 1,500 in Hebron, hundreds more in Tulkarem and Qalqilya, and 2,000 in Gaza City. The protesters waved Palestinian flags and called for the release of all political prisoners.

Protesters march through Nabi Saleh in solidarity with hunger striker Khader Adnan
Protesters march through Nabi Saleh in solidarity with hunger striker Khader Adnan

Israel's retaliation against the hunger strikers was swift. "All the prisoners' belongings were confiscated except their towels and their shoes," said Sarahna, adding that prison authorities conducted extensive searches of the hunger strikers' jail cells. Israeli prison guards even took salt--the only calorie-free nutrient they ingest--away from the prisoners.

The Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network issued a statement detailing the strikers' demands:

We demand the immediate release of all Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. They have been targeted by an unfair and unequal legal system. Their imprisonment reflects Israel's inherent system of injustice and racism. In addition, Israel must immediately halt its practices of: administrative detention, torture and ill-treatment of detainees, solitary confinement and isolation, the use of military courts in the occupied Palestinian territory that illegally try civilians, undermining a fair trial by using secret evidence against the accused, arresting vulnerable groups, such as children, disabled, elderly and ill people.

Other sources add that the strike demands also include the right to family visits and the right to receive family photographs. And the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reports that hunger strikers are also protesting against humiliating treatment by their jailers, including strip searches of visiting family members and night searches of prison cells.

Meanwhile, the health of eight prisoners already on lengthy hunger strikes--including five prisoners currently in Ramleh prison hospital, among them, Bilal Thiab and Thaer Halahleh, who had not eaten for 56 days at the time of writing--was deteriorating dramatically, according to medics familiar with their conditions.

THE SUCCESS of Khader Adnan's hunger strike inspired the most recent wave of prisoners to organize around this strategy.

On December 17, Adnan, a Palestinian baker from the West Bank, was arrested in the middle of the night and placed in administrative detention. Adnan had been arrested and detained eight prior times and spent a total of six years in Israeli prisons without ever being charged with a crime.

Desperate to avoid another indeterminate period of detention and abuse, Adnan began a courageous hunger strike that lasted 66 days and finally ended February 17 after his lawyers brokered a deal with Israel for his release in April. Adnan--detained solely on the basis of his political association with the Palestinian organization Islamic Jihad--nearly died, and it took him more than 50 days to fully recover. Adnan's case received worldwide media attention, and Israel released him on Palestinian Prisoners' Day.

At the time of Adnan's most recent imprisonment, he was among 320 other Palestinians being held in administrative detention, 21 of them members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

As Adnan's fast continued into its ninth week and his health deteriorated, hundreds of Palestinian prisoners joined him on a one-day solidarity hunger strike on February 13. As a result, 80 inmates were deported to the Negev prison, where the desert conditions are harsh, and the remote location makes visits from families difficult.

Palestinians also demonstrated outside Ofer Prison in the West Bank, where Israeli army forces suppressed them with rubber bullets and tear gas. These weapons are also regularly deployed against nonviolent protests held by Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

Despite having survived the longest hunger strike yet, Adnan was not the first to employ the hunger strike tactic to bring attention to his case and Israel's policy of administrative detention. In fact, for Palestinian prisoners who have no other outlet for protest, the hunger strike is one of the few tools available.

The recent actions come on the heels of a previous mass hunger strike in 2011. On September 27 of last year, some 50 Palestinian political prisoners began a hunger strike to protest the deteriorating conditions in Israeli prisons. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the restrictive and abusive treatment of prisoners as part of the effort to pressure Hamas to agree to a prisoner exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Measures included preventing access to books, new clothing and the expanded use of solitary confinement, reduced family visits and more. Within a few days, the number of hunger strikers swelled to almost 250, and an additional 60 Palestinian activists from the West Bank joined them in solidarity. The strike lasted for several weeks.

Hana Shalabi, another West Bank resident detained by Israel, also successfully used a hunger strike to secure her release, refusing food for a total of 43 days before being released and deported to Gaza.

Shalabi had been previously held for 30 months under an administrative detention order until Israel freed and pardoned her and 1,026 other prisoners in 2011 in exchange for the release of Gilad Shalit. Shortly after her release, Shalabi was again detained, and as Adnan ended his strike, she announced her own, demanding not only her own freedom, but also an end to Israel's policy of administrative detention.

THOUGH COMMENTATORS in Israel and elsewhere have gone on tirades about prisoners released in exchange for Shalit allegedly returning to "terrorism," the case of Shalabi is a telling one. Shalabi was traumatized by her imprisonment, and after her release as part of the Shalit deal, she rarely left her family's home in the West Bank.

In addition to her withdrawal from social life, Shalabi should never have been re-arrested because she, like the rest of the prisoners released in the Shalit deal, were pardoned by Israeli President Shimon Peres. Even the most minimal juridical protections prevent governments from punishing a person twice for the same crime or from using a pardoned crime as justification for further punishment.

Activists around the world, including in Washington, D.C., New York City and Chicago, held vigils and actions calling for an end to Israel's administrative detention of Adnan and later Shalabi. Amnesty International and a host of other human rights organizations also called for the hunger strikers' release. Eventually, in both cases, Israel was forced to release them. This gave a great deal of hope and inspiration to Palestinian political prisoners, and several others began their own hunger strikes.

The policy of administrative detention was first adopted in 1945 by British colonial officials. The policy gave Palestine's overlords the "right" to detain a Palestinian prisoner for up to six months, at which time the detention order can be renewed. The policy is a violation of basic human rights and political freedoms since Israel never has to charge the prisoner or even present evidence against the detainee. This means that Palestinian prisoners have no way to challenge their detention.

This allows Israeli officials to indefinitely imprison any individual on the grounds of mere suspicion of posing a "threat" to Israel's security. Of course, this allegation can be leveled at individuals for almost any reason whatsoever, including engaging in the internationally guaranteed right to resist the foreign occupation of Palestinian land by Israel.

In this way, Palestinians are regularly imprisoned without proof of guilt. Israel's motivations are many: it may be as a means of punishment, revenge, retaliation for political activism and advocacy, or as a method of social control by Israeli intelligence services.

There are also differences in the use of administrative detention depending on whether an individual is arrested within Israel or within the Occupied Territories.

In Israel, an administrative detention order can only be obtained with the consent of the Minister of Defense, and within 48 hours, the defendant must be brought before a civil judge, and then again every three months. In the Occupied Territories, an army commander of any rank can issue an administrative detention order, and after that, a military committee decides whether or not to uphold it. After this, a prisoner can appeal to a military court of appeals.

This only one example of the cruelty that Palestinians face from Israel's abusive injustice system.

For example, a Palestinian who faces charges in court can be held in custody for eight days prior to being brought before a judge or committee, according to the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association. An Israeli citizen, on the other hand, can be detained for a maximum of 24 hours before being seen by a judge.

IN ADDITION to the 320 Palestinians in administrative detention in Palestinian prisons, dozens more are being held in Israeli military bases. About 80 prisoners have been held without charge for six to 12 months, 88 for one to two years, and 16 for two to four-and-a-half years.

These statistics include minors; for example, in 2010, a 16-year-old boy was detained without charge for nine months. In the general Palestinian prisoner population, there are 31 prisoners under the age of 16 and 172 between the ages of 16 and 18.

As Daoud Kuttab, an award-winning Palestinian journalist who resides in Jerusalem and Amman, wrote:

Israel, which always boasts of being the only democracy in the Middle East, uses various emergency laws and administrative orders to control the Palestinian population under its military rule. The rule of law is converted by the Israelis into a rule by law--military law, that is--by which the Israeli army decides how millions of Palestinians are controlled.

The mistreatment of Palestinian prisoners begins with their first contact with Israeli forces. Arrest often includes the use of beatings, dogs and concussions grenades, and is regularly accompanied by property destruction, vandalism and theft.

Then comes the interrogation--and torture. Sleep deprivation, intensive interrogation sessions, the use of painful "stress postures," suffocation and strangulation, and verbal and mental abuse have all been recorded. Later, prisoners can be kept in solitary confinement or isolation cells for prolonged periods of time.

Shawan Jabarin, director of the Al-Haq human rights organization, described Israel's mistreatment of Palestinian prisoners in an interview:

The punishment mentality is guiding Israeli practices and policies. Every day, new rules are created, [prisoners] have to take off their clothes while the rooms are searched, [the prison authorities] are transferring prisoners, isolating them for years. It is psychological torture. It is part of a revenge, a punishment mentality. To restrict [Palestinians] from their freedom is not enough.

Palestinian prisoners and detainees can only receive visits from their immediate family--but not men over 16. Immediate family members who are men over 16 are typically prevented from visiting prisons inside Israel, and when they do receive special entry permits, they get them only once or twice a year. But in practice, hundreds of families never receive permits because of undisclosed "security issues."

When family visits are allowed, they take place twice a month for 45 minutes, under maximum-security conditions. The trip to the prison is in and of itself a measure of restriction, as it can take up to 15 hours of travel depending on the families IDs and location, and how many check points and searches they must go through.

Of course, for Palestinians setting out on a trip, there's never a guarantee that they will reach their destination. On June 6, 2007, Israel suspended family visits to the Gaza Strip, effectively barring all means of communication between prisoners from Gaza and the outside world. This was compounded with the already existing ban on telephone communications with prisoners in Gaza.

Israel also practices a systematic policy of medical negligence toward Palestinians in its prisons and detention centers. Long delays and substandard medical treatment are the norm. Although all prisons include a clinic, doctors are on duty erratically and specialists are not provided.

When prisoners get any medical attention, the usual treatment is to prescribe painkillers. Transfer to a hospital for urgent medical needs may be delayed by weeks and even months. Human rights organizations estimate that between 2000 and 2008 17 Palestinian prisoners have died as a result of medical negligence.

WHEN ASKED about his treatment at the hands of the prison authorities, Khader Adnan told Al-Jazeera:

Up until the last day in the prison hospital, they would embark on ways to humiliate me, such as opening the door to stare at me whenever I would use the bathroom or shower. When I was hunger striking, they would purposely eat and drink in front of me. They would insult me, call me a dog. One told me that they still haven't done anything to me yet. Their manners are so unscrupulous. They tried to provoke me by repeating that my wife was unfaithful to me, and that my daughters were not mine."

Prison guards subject prisoners to harsh penalties in response to strikes, protests or disobedience and often impose collective punishment. They sometimes prevent prisoners from receiving financial allowance for months or confiscate personal belongings. Or they might impose long spells in solitary confinement and cut off prisoners' access to water and electricity. Prisoners have complained that guards sometimes burst into their cells and fire weapons in the air or conduct late-night searches.

On the eve of the April 17 mass hunger strike, prison spokesperson Sivan Weizman declared, "We have coped with hunger strikes in the past, and we are prepared to do so again." During the first few days of the strike, Addameer reported that Palestinian prisoners were facing sharp repression from prison officials, and prisoners have reported the confiscation of personal items and warm clothes. In response, inmates at Nafha prison are threatening to refuse even water.

Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network also reports that:

One group of Palestinian prisoners associated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine at Eshel prison participating in the strike has been transferred to Ohalei Kedar prison in retribution, while Hamas prisoners at Eshel prison on hunger strike were separated from one another and moved into the rooms of Fatah prisoners, in an attempt to exacerbate factional tensions...

At Ramon prison, Palestinian hunger strikers have been moved into isolation cells, and hunger strikers throughout Israeli prisons are being denied access to independent doctors. Addameer lawyer Samer Sama'an has been banned from visiting all prisoners for six months, the second time in recent months that such a ban has been applied to an Addameer lawyer during prison hunger strikes.

In response, hunger strikers have issued a statement that they have no intention to end their refusal of food until their original demands are met.

Immediately after his release from administrative detention, Adnan decided that in honor of Palestinian Prisoners' Day, he would first visit with the families of other political prisoners before seeing his own family. Adnan wanted to express his appreciation for their support during his hunger strike, and to show solidarity with the "anguish of having loved ones behind the bars of the Israeli occupation." As Adnan continued:

My freedom is incomplete because of the prisoners whom I've left behind. We salute all of the prisoners: Lina Jarbouni [the longest-serving female prisoner], Sheikh Ahmed Hajj [the oldest prisoner on hunger strike], Omar Abu Shalalah, Jaafar Ezzedine, Hassan Safadi and, of course, Thaer Halaleh and Bilal Thiab...

The mass hunger strike is a signal to all oppressed and vulnerable people everywhere, not just Palestinians. It's a message to everyone suffering from injustice, under the boot of oppression. This method will be successful, God willing, and will achieve the rights of the prisoners.

Further Reading

From the archives