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Behind the Palestinian hunger strike are countless stories of suffering

The unprecedented action is not just a bid for improved conditions, but a call for the most basic of human rights and treatment in Israeli prisons

The Israeli reaction to the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike that began on 17 April has been unprecedented.

The hunger strike, which involved more than 1,500 Palestinian prisoners, aimed to highlight the unfairness of Israel's detention policies and demand better treatment for inmates, however it has been met with calls for the participating prisoners' execution.

Reactions have bordered on the dangerous and racist, including the remarks made by Knesset member Oren Hazan who said: “There is no problem even if all the prisoners were to perish as a result of their strike. After all, prisons are overcrowded whereas there is room in the earth for all of their corpses.”

Israeli reactions to the Palestinian prisoners' strike have bordered on the dangerous and racist

There have also been the statements made by Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman who, in addition to calling for their execution, said that participating prisoners should be left out to die of hunger.

In other statements, the prisoners were described as poisonous cockroaches who should be exterminated with gas and for whom extermination camps should be set up.

Four days into the strike, Israeli settlers set up barbecues near Ofer prison to provoke the prisoners who, at that point, had gone without food or drink for the equivalent of 12 meals.

Arab solidarity

The hunger strike started with the hope that it would, in time, win the solidarity of all the Palestinian factions and national and popular forces.

We also hoped that, soon afterwards, it would develop into a movement of Arab solidarity, perhaps even an international one, with the cause of the prisoners and their demands, building pressure on Israel and forcing it to meet the prisoners’ legitimate and humanitarian demands.

Mass hunger strikes may have a much bigger impact than individual ones. Yet, they are no less dangerous and difficult if they continue for too long, just as in the case of individual strikes.

There are 5,600 political prisoners held in Israeli prisons, including 57 women of whom 13 are minors

After one week or so on hunger strike, the body of a prisoner begins to erode after their weight is reduced by no less than five kilograms. Don’t forget: in this current strike, those participating include minors, women, the elderly and the sick.

A closed shop in the West Bank town of Ramallah on April 27, 2017, during a general strike in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails. Some 1,500 Palestinian prisoners entered the 11th day of a hunger strike (AFP)

The hunger-striking prisoner suffers more from pain than from hunger: headache, joint ache, trembling and immobility are just some of the symptoms. Most of the strikers suffer from various other illnesses such as osteomalacia, cancer, rheumatism, shortness of breath, asthma and other sicknesses that have resulted from tough prison circumstances, including torture and malnutrition. As it is, these prisoners require special medication that they are regularly denied.

According to reports published by the Political Prisoner’s Club, the Department for the Affairs of Political Prisoners and the Freed and the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, there are 5,600 political prisoners held in Israeli prisons, including 57 women of whom 13 are minors. After 15 years in prison, the longest-serving woman prisoner, Lina al-Jarbouni, was released by the Israeli authorities on 16 April 2017.

It is worth knowing that there are still 200 Palestinians who have been in prison since before the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement (the Oslo Accords) in 1993.

Some of the detainees have been held in prison longer than any other prisoners in the world. These are: Karim Younis and Maher Younis, who have been in detention since January 1984, as well as Nael al-Barghouthi who spent 36 years in detention, 34 continuously. He was re-arrested in 2014 shortly after his release. He was one of the prisoners freed as part of the prisoners’ exchange deal for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Inhumane treatment

The political prisoners’ hunger strike should not be viewed as a bid for improving detention conditions. It is not at all true that all the prisoners want is better conditions, as if they would agree to remain detained so long as these conditions met 21st century standards.

In fact, the political prisoners receive the most inhumane treatment. There are around 500 political prisoners now held in occupation jails who have never been charged with anything. They are usually held for terms ranging between three to six months that are always renewable, but some have been in detention for years without being charged.

There are around 500 political prisoners now held in occupation jails who have never been charged with anything … some have been in detention for years without being charged

Political prisoners are usually denied medical treatment and regular medical examinations. As a consequence of such negligence, 13 people – who are considered martyrs - have succumbed to their illnesses and died while in detention. There are others today who are in urgent need of treatment and have been denied it for years.

Relatives have also been denied Red Cross second visits. Family visits through the Red Cross have been restricted to one visit every four weeks. Yet since the hunger strike started, even lawyers have been barred from visiting the political prisoners who were already denied family visits altogether as an arbitrary measure taken against them for the hunger strike.

Several political prisoners have been placed in solitary confinement in Al-Jalamah and Ilan prisons in the Beer Sheba region and other locations. Their personal belongings have been confiscated, they have been stripped of their clothes and they have suffered constant harassment in the form of arbitrary transfers between prisons and constant searches of their cells during which they are beaten.

Some of them have lost one or both of their parents without having the opportunity to bid them farewell, such as Mahmoud Abu Surur. Some of them became fathers while in detention and had not been able to enjoy the joys of fatherhood, which is a basic human right, such as Adnan Muraghah and many others. Some of them do not know their grandchildren or their nephews and nieces except from the few photographs that are allowed into prison every month or so.

Some prisoners are confined to prison cells and are denied visits for many weeks, perhaps even months, such as the case of Walid Maraqah. Some of those who hail from the West Bank, such as Nasir Abu Surur and Hasam Shahin and dozens of others, are not allowed visits because their families are denied permission to enter Israel, and therefore cannot make the visits.

And many relatives are denied visits because they happen to be former political prisoners themselves. Veteran political prisoners are often denied permission to visit their children or their brothers who are held as political prisoners. 

Basic human rights

Prisoners may be punished by being denied access to education and reading. Only rarely are some prisoners allowed to pursue their education while in detention. Many pursue such activities secretly, which takes a long time and a lot of suffering. They make use of whatever assistance their families and fellow prisoners are able to offer, such as in the cases of Marwan Barghouthi, Karm Younis, Walid Maraqah and Muhammad Abbad, who have academic credentials that enable them to render such services to other prisoners.

It is quite tough bringing in books that prison officials scrutinise closely with many proscribed. Education may be a human right guaranteed by all international conventions and human rights, but not inside Israel’s prisons. 

Education may be a human right guaranteed by all international conventions and human rights, but not inside Israel’s prisons

Telephones are proscribed. Messages too are restricted and are highly monitored. Sometimes messages take many weeks, even months, to be delivered. Some never reach their destinations.

And some of the old political prisoners know nothing about the social media, the internet and the computer. They have not heard of smartphones. Others were denied a phone call to their dying parents.

Such was the case for Muhammad who lost his father Professor Abd Al-Rahman Abbad. On the visiting day of 25 May 2015, his mother returned from visiting him to find that her husband, who had been suffering from cancer for years, had passed away. His illness barred him from visiting his son for many months before his death.

Legitimate demands

As such, we can see that the demands of the hunger-striking political prisoners are legitimate and humanitarian. We would never claim that their demands legitimise their detention or that they imply that they accept their incarceration in prison cells for years.

Some of them have already been in detention for more than half of their lives, such as the case of Muhammad Abbad, Karim Younis, Maher Younis, Nael Barghouthi, Nasir Abu Surur and Muhammad Abu Surur, and the list goes on. 

The question is: will the strike continue until dignity is restored? Or will Israel resort to force feeding them as they did the hunger strikers in the desert detention camp of Nafha in 1980? 

- Dr Inas Abad is a political science researcher and lecturer and a political activist from East Jerusalem. Her brother, who has been held in an Israeli prison for the past 16 years, is one of the leaders of the hunger strike.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Image: Families of Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli jails demonstrate in front of the EU offices in East Jerusalem on 27 April 2017 after hundreds of the detainees launched a hunger strike 11 days earlier over demands ranging from improved medical care to greater access to telephone calls (AFP)

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