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Former Palestinian detainees praise hunger strikers, as prison strike continues

Former hunger striker Khader Adnan told MEE that the strikes were 'an act of resistance to break the chains of the oppressor'
Palestinian protesters hurl stones towards Israeli security forces following a demonstration in Bethlehem to show their support for Palestinians in Israeli jails (AFP)

More than 1,500 Palestinians detained in Israeli prisons have launched an open-ended hunger strike with a list of demands for better living conditions.

Headed by Palestinian Legislative Council member and Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, the strike is one of the largest instigated by Palestinian prisoners and was launched to coincide with prisoners' day, 17 April. Its demands include an end to solitary confinement and administrative detention, better medical care for the prisoners, the ability to pursue educational options and more dignified family visitation rights.

Despite the danger to the strikers themselves, the strike is a tool used by Palestinians in Israeli prisons as a means to resist Israeli rule over their lives. Former hunger striker Khader Adnan described the hunger strike as "an act of resistance to break the chains of the oppressor, to feel we are in control even when we are chained by them".

The large scale of the latest wave of hunger strikes however also aims to push the Palestinian public and international community to highlight the injustices of Israeli subjugation inside prisons as part of the wider occupation.

Since 1967, more than 40 percent of the male Palestinian population aged between 25 and 60 have been arrested by Israeli forces. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics this means that about 70 percent of households have had at least one prisoner.

According to human rights organisation, Addameer, in most cases those arrested are the breadwinners of the household, which creates a crippling effect on not only the prisoners but families at large.

The detention centres, interrogation process and formidable prison conditions are not alien to Palestinians. The Shabas (Israeli Prison Service) has been an integral factor in sustaining the occupation.

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The conditions which Palestinians endure in Israeli prisons or during the interrogation process have resulted in medical problems and created traumatised communities. In other tragic cases, the repression and negligence of Palestinian prisoners has resulted in death, as is the case of Jamal Sarahin in 2007 and 18-year-old Jawad Abu Magasib in 2005.

Between 2000 and 2008 human rights organisations found that 17 Palestinian prisoners died due to medical negligence alone.

Historically, Palestinian hunger strikes have often revolved around demands for more dignified living conditions. The first of these strikes in 1968 pressured the Shabas to provide mattresses, clothing, books, writing utensils and paper for prisoners.

Pushing a step further, prisoners also protested the mandatory salute for prison guards and fought for the right to organise. The strikes mirror Palestinian resistance outside of the prison walls as a tool to defy Israel's systematic attempts to break the Palestinian spirit.

Palestinian demands and the Palestinian street

Deemed a backbone of the Palestinian struggle, the Palestinian prisoner movement has been a fundamental factor in mobilising the Palestinian street and amplifying the Palestinian voice.

Former Palestinian prisoner and novelist Ismat Mansour explained that "the strike addresses a state of disempowerment in Palestinian prisoners on the micro level and the larger population on the macro".

The hunger strike comes after the seventh Fatah conference which excluded many of the voices on the street and instead was accused of augmenting the chasm within Palestinian society.

Mansour suggested that "despite the fears and current standing harsh conditions of the Palestinian context, this strike presents an opportunity for change and confrontation of not only Israeli oppression but Palestinian division on the outside as well".

Having spent 20 years in Israeli prisons between 1993 and 2013, Mansour is familiar with the evolution of the Palestinian prisoner movement. He told Middle East Eye that "this strike cannot be judged until its end, where even the most humble of success will reinforce and empower the Palestinian population drowning in disgruntlement and hopelessness".

It is a reminder to all Palestinians that even while chained... factionalism and oppression and the struggle does not end'

- Khader Adnan, former prisoner

Since the last large-scale hunger strike in 2004, Palestinians have fallen into despair, he said, yet as the prisoner movement gained momentum the streets would also mimic the efforts on the outside. An example of this occured in 2015, when Khader Adnan's 56-day hunger strike resulted in mass protests in both Israel-Palestine and abroad, drawing support for the prisoner movement and the Palestinian struggle.

In contrast to the Irish hunger strikes of the 1980s, which called for demands such as being considered prisoners of war, Palestinian hunger strikes have focused on basic necessities for living.

However, while the demands of Palestinian prisoners contrast with the demands made by the Irish prisoners in the 1980 and 1981 hunger strikes in British-run H-Blocks, the struggle is similarly rooted in political ends with deep socio-economic undercurrents.

As Adnan explained to MEE: "Despite our difference with the hunger strikes in other struggles, our call remains to be for dignity and liberation - the difference is only in the details."

The demands not only oppose the conditions of the prisoners themselves, but also push for a larger endeavour such as an end to administrative detention. Out of 6,500 Palestinian prisoners, approximately 500 are held in administrative detention.

Should the hunger strike be successful in ending such detentions, it would hinder Israel's ability to jail Palestinians for a prolonged time under the pretext of secret evidence.

Contemporary politics

While Palestinians have initiated mass hunger strikes in the past, the Israeli government's growing right-wing tendencies could mean that repressive tactics may increase so as to discourage mobilisation among Palestinian prisoners and the rest of the Palestinian population.

"Israel has been using internal Palestinian affairs to debunk the legitimacy of the hunger strike," said Mansour.

With the Palestinian sphere internally divided some were quick to credit the initiation of the hunger strike as a ploy by Marwan Barghouti to garner political support. Former Palestinian prisoners, however, said the hunger strike has been in the works since before Fatah's seventh conference and its efforts are far more broad than a single man's endeavour.

Having performed his first hunger strike in the Palestinian Authority's prisons, Adnan rejected attempts to delegitimise the strike.

"No matter what, it's crucial to remember that all those undergoing the hunger strike are performing an act of resistance and that is something that should be praised," he said.

Hoping that the Palestinian street overcomes its division and joins the strike in solidarity and mobilisation, Adnan re-affirmed that "this is not only a refusal of the occupation, but a refusal to cooperate with it and make it easy for them".

Directing his tone toward the Palestinian public, he proclaimed: "It is a reminder to all Palestinians that even while chained inside, we're overcoming our horrible conditions, factionalism and oppression and the struggle does not end."

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