Winning concessions from the apartheid state

May 17, 2012

Laura Durkay reports on the heroic resistance struggle of Palestinian prisoners.

PALESTINIAN PRISONERS in Israeli jails ended one of the largest and longest-running hunger strikes in modern history on May 14. Approximately 2,000 prisoners refused food for 28 days, and a handful struck for far longer--including two prisoners, Thaer Halahleh and Bilal Diab, who went without food for an incredible 77 days, longer than any hunger strike on record.

The prisoners' demands included ending the use of solitary confinement as punishment; restoration of family visits for prisoners from Gaza, most of whom have not seen their families since 2007; the right to educational materials, books and newspapers in prison; an end to night raids and arbitrary searches of cells; and an end to the practice of administrative detention, in which Palestinian can be held indefinitely without charge or trial, based on secret evidence.

Details of the agreement struck between the prisoners' negotiating committee and the Israeli Prison Service are still emerging. While the Israeli government didn't concede to every demand, it appears the prisoners have won some important victories.

Families gathered in Gaza to rally in support of the hunger strikers
Families gathered in Gaza to rally in support of the hunger strikers (Joe Catron)

Wresting even minor concessions from the Israeli government required a titanic struggle that was embraced by activists across Palestine and the world--evidence of how deeply the issue of prisoners resonates among Palestinians and those who support their struggle.

Israel currently holds about 4,400 Palestinian political prisoners, according to the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem. Around 40 percent of adult Palestinian males will spend some portion of their life in prison. Prison conditions are harsh, and prisoners are frequently subjected to collective punishment.

Contrary to rules outlined in the Geneva Conventions, many Palestinian prisoners are held inside Israel, meaning their family members must request permits in order to visit them. This permit system can easily be used to put pressure on prisoners or their family members.

Prisoners from the Gaza Strip have been denied family visits altogether since 2007. After Hamas militants captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006, Palestinian prisoners were subjected to a variety of punitive measures in retaliation, including the banning of educational and reading materials. These measures continued even after Shalit was released in a prisoner exchange deal last October.

Israel also holds about 300 Palestinian prisoners in administrative detention, a form of indefinite incarceration without trial left over from British colonial rule. Under administrative detention laws, Palestinians can be imprisoned for up to six months without charges or trial for unspecified "security" reasons, based on secret evidence provided to a military judge by the Israeli secret police. These six-month detention orders can be renewed indefinitely.

THE CURRENT hunger strike wave was started by two administrative detainees, Khader Adnan and Hana Shalabi. In December, Khader Adnan began a hunger strike with one demand--that he either be brought to trial or released. After 66 days, with Adnan on the verge of death, the Israeli government was forced to admit that it had no evidence against him. Adnan was released to his overjoyed family members.

Hana Shalabi began her own hunger strike in February with the same demand. The Israeli government was forced to release her, too, after 43 days--but in a cruel twist, exiled her to the Gaza Strip, instead of returning her to her family in the West Bank.

These two successful hunger strikes led to half a dozen more prisoners adopting the same tactic. Then, on April 17, up to 2,500 prisoners launched a mass, indefinite hunger strike. A movement that started with two isolated cases turned into a campaign of mass nonviolent resistance.

Clearly, the Israeli government did not want to allow any pattern to develop of releasing hunger-striking prisoners. While Israeli politicians remained largely silent on the issue, prison guards and authorities tried everything they could think of to break the strike--including beating prisoners, transferring them from one prison to another, using solitary confinement and prison-wide curfews, denying prisoner visits with family members and lawyers, and confiscating salt, the only nourishment most hunger strikers were consuming.

But huge numbers of prisoners remained steadfast, and protests in support of them began to spread across the Occupied Territories and the world. Demonstrations were held outside Ofer Prison near Ramallah. Activists also blocked the entrance to Ma'ale Adumim, an Israeli mega-settlement in the West Bank. Others blocked traffic in a main square in Ramallah. Another blockade of UN headquarters was designed to protest the UN's silence on the hunger strike.

A protest of Palestinians, Israeli and internationals near a prison complex in Ramle, a town inside Israel, was brutally repressed. In Gaza, thousands of Palestinians rallied outside the Red Cross headquarters on Prisoners' Day. Supporters of the prisoners built a permanent presence in Gaza City's al-Jundi Square with a solidarity hunger strike, marches, rallies and art depicting the struggle.

While the Western governments that fund Israel kept quiet, international awareness and solidarity with the struggle grew. Over 1,000 people worldwide signed a pledge to take part in a one-day solidarity fast on May 17, the one-month anniversary of the start of the mass hunger strike.

As the seven long-term hunger strikers reached their 50th, 60th or 70th days without food, Israel risked repeating the spectacle of 1980s Britain, when 10 Irish political prisoners on hunger strike died because Margaret Thatcher's government refused to give in to their demands.

The week marking the one-month anniversary of the hunger strike also included Nakba Day, May 15, when Palestinians mark the ethnic cleansing of historic Palestine with protests. Even the Israeli government realized that the death of a hunger striker during this week would create a potentially explosive situation.

In the final days, world leaders like Tony Blair finally began making noises urging Israel to resolve the situation--not because they cared one bit about the lives of Palestinian prisoners, but because they were afraid for the security of their ally in the event of mass protests in the Occupied Territories.

AFTER NEARLY a month of stonewalling, the Israel Prison Service finally gave in to some of the prisoners' demands. The details of the agreement released so far by Addameer, the legal collective that represents many of the prisoners, reports that Israel has made the following concessions:

An end to the use of long-term solitary confinement as punishment. The 19 prisoners currently in solitary will be moved out of isolation within 72 hours.

Reinstatement of family visits for prisoners from the Gaza Strip and for prisoners from the West Bank whose family members have been denied visits on unspecified "security" grounds.

Formation of a committee to improve prison conditions.

No renewals of administrative detention orders for the 308 Palestinians currently in administrative detention, unless the secret files upon which the administrative detention is based contain "very serious" information.

In addition, the Israeli Prison Service pledged to release at least five of the longest-term hunger strikers, including Thaer Halahleh and Bilal Diab, at the end of their current administrative detention periods, which expire over the next several months.

If these concessions were, in fact, accepted by Israel, the agreement will be a huge victory. It means Israel was not willing to take the risk of starting a third Intifada.

The hunger strike demonstrated that mass resistance can force even the most vicious regime to back down, and that a group of people in the most vulnerable position possible--prisoners, members of an oppressed and dispossessed population, subject to a brutal military occupation funded by the U.S.--can organize successfully through collective action and international solidarity.

Of course, no one should trust that the Israeli government will keep its word if it can find a way to back out of it. As Addameer notes:

Israel has consistently failed to respect the agreements it executes with Palestinians regarding prisoners' issues. For this reason, it will be essential for all supporters of Palestinian political prisoners to actively monitor the events of the next few months to ensure that this agreement is fully implemented.

Particularly worrisome is the provision that administrative detainees may continue to be held if the evidence against them is "very serious." Since the evidence is secret, produced by Israeli security forces, and never seen by prisoners or their lawyers, there is no guarantee that Israel won't attempt to drum up "very serious" evidence against a large number of its current administrative detainees.

The only thing that will force Israel to respect any of these agreements is continued mass pressure from Palestinians and their supporters worldwide, including those of us in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. But supporters of Palestinian resistance can take heart in the knowledge that the movement has scored a heroic victory against Israeli apartheid.

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