Israel & Palestine

Resistance in prisons

Print edition : June 09, 2017

A rally in the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 17 in support of the Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails. Photo: Mohamad Torokman/REUTERS

Marwan Barghouti waves as he enters a Tel Aviv court in April 2003. The prominent Palestinian prisoner and the organiser of the protest has been placed in solitary confinement. Photo: AP

Palestinian political prisoners in Israel are on an indefinite hunger strike protesting against the degrading conditions in the prisons, the restrictions imposed on family visits and the very nature of their detention.

More than 1,500 Palestinian political prisoners incarcerated for years in high-security Israeli jails have been on an indefinite hunger strike since April 17, a day that is observed every year as “Prisoners’ Day” by Palestinians in the occupied territories and Israel. More than 6,500 Palestinian prisoners, including an estimated 300 children, are languishing in Israeli jails under bleak conditions. The Israeli government has passed a law that allows for the arrest of children aged 12 and above for “terrorist offences”. Around 550 Palestinian prisoners have not even been put through the charade of a court appearance. They are “administrative detainees” who have been arrested on the basis of “secret evidence” but never told of the evidence the state has gathered against them. The policy of “administrative detention” allows the Israeli government to detain Palestinians without any charges filed against them. One of the major demands of the agitating prisoners is the scrapping of “administrative detention”.

Around 200 prisoners were in Israeli jails before the signing of the 1993 Oslo peace accords between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). Some of them figure in the list of prisoners who have spent the longest time in prison worldwide. Karim Younis and Mahir Younis have been in an Israeli prison since 1984. Many prisoners have lost their close relatives, whom they were not allowed to see in their last days. Some were even denied permission to talk to their dying parents. The hunger strike, coincidentally, is taking place on the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the 100th anniversary of the inglorious Balfour Declaration, which laid the groundwork for the Jewish takeover of the Palestinian heartland and the subsequent Palestinian “naqba” (catastrophe).

Under international law, Palestinian prisoners must be held in the occupied territories, not in the territory of the occupying power as is being done now. It is difficult for immediate relatives of the prisoners to visit them in Israel because of the travel restrictions imposed on the Palestinian population in the occupied territories. Human rights groups have described this as a violation of the Geneva Convention, unlawful and cruel. “Instead of unlawfully transferring Palestinians outside the occupied territories, Israel must ensure that all Palestinians arrested there must be held in prisons and detention centres in the occupied Palestinian territories. Until then, Israelis must stop imposing excessive restrictions on visitation rights as a means of punishing prisoners and their families, and ensure that conditions fully meet international standards,” a statement from Amnesty International said. Amnesty has given the example of one Palestinian prisoner who was allowed to meet his family only on one occasion though he was in jail for five and a half years.

The striking prisoners also want to bring to the notice of the international community the miserable conditions under which they have been living. By the second week of May, only a handful of prisoners gave up the fast for medical reasons. Since 1967, more than 50 Palestinian prisoners have died owing to the medical negligence of the jail authorities. Another 150 have died, according to the Palestinian Prisoners Club, because of inhuman treatment and torture. The last mass hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners in 2012 ended after the Israeli authorities agreed to limit administrative detentions and end the practice of prolonged solitary detentions. The authorities also agreed to allow visits of relatives of prisoners from Gaza. But since then, they have backtracked on most of their commitments.

The importance of Barghouti

The Israeli authorities are trying all kinds of dirty tricks to discredit the strike. They first tried to portray it as a publicity stunt by the charismatic Palestinian leader, Marwan Barghouti, who is leading the prisoners’ hunger strike. Barghouti, a Fatah leader, has been in an Israeli prison since 2002. He has been sentenced to five life terms on the trumped-up charges of being behind the deaths of five Israeli civilians during the Second Palestinian Intifada (uprising) of 2000. The Swiss-based Inter-Parliamentary Union described his trial and conviction as “a violation of international law” and as a “failure to meet fair trial standards”.

Many Palestinians consider Barghouti, 58, the natural successor of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is 82. A succession battle is already on behind the scenes. Opinion polls have shown that Palestinians prefer Barghouti by a wide margin to be their next leader. Israelis have tried to portray the strike as a “political stunt” by Barghouti. As the Palestinian street coalesced in support of the striking prisoners, Israeli authorities tried to plant doctored pictures of Barghouti and some of his comrades snacking behind the prison walls.

“The aim of the strike,” Barghouti said, “is to achieve more humane, fair and more dignified prison conditions.” In an article smuggled out of the prison, and published in many major world publications, Barghouti clearly explained why he and his comrades were embarking on an indefinite hunger strike. “Israel has established a dual regime, a form of judicial apartheid, that provides virtual impunity for Israelis who commit crimes against Palestinians, while criminalising Palestinian presence and resistance,” he emphasised. Marches in support of Barghouti, who has been moved to solitary confinement, and the other striking prisoners have been held in all major Palestinian cities, including Gaza. Hamas, a political rival of Fatah, which rules Gaza, is also supporting the hunger strikers. In the second week of May, a Palestinian was killed in the West Bank during a rally in support of the striking prisoners. The solidarity committee formed to support the prisoners has called on the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) to halt security cooperation with Israel and postpone the local body elections.

Even as the condition of the prisoners is worsening by the day, Israel is refusing to negotiate with them on the issue of improving the living conditions in the jails and increasing the number of family visits. Barghouti’s wife, Fadhwa Barghouti, worried about the deteriorating health condition of her husband and other prisoners, wrote a letter to Pope Francis in the second week of May. Barghouti’s lawyer was finally allowed to meet him a month after the strike started. In a letter addressed to the Palestinian people, which was handed over to the lawyer, Barghouti said: “I promise to you and all the prisoners that we are continuing the empty stomachs campaign and the campaign for freedom and dignity until we achieve our objectives, and that nothing will break the will and determination of the prisoners despite the assault on them and the oppression they are coping with. I stress that all attempts at blackmail and tough moves will only increase the prisoners determination.” Barghouti called for political unity among Palestinians and urged Fatah and Hamas to heal their rift. At the same time, he objected to holding negotiations with Israel until it agreed to vacate the occupied territories and recognised the State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Barghouti has to undergo humiliating “body checks” four times every day. He has already lost 14 kilograms since he embarked on the hunger strike.

Israeli Defence Minister Avignor Lieberman expressed the hope that all the fasting prisoners would die or be executed. A week after the strike started, Israeli authorities targeted the leaders; they confiscated their personal belongings and sent many to solitary confinement. Hospitals have been ordered to remain on standby to force-feed the fasting prisoners. Both the World Medical Association and the United Nations consider force-feeding a cruel and degrading punishment as well as violation of international law. Force-feeding of Palestinian prisoners has led to deaths in the past. The Israeli Medical Association has also issued a statement saying that force-feeding will be “never accepted ethically” as was stated in the World Medical Association’s Malta Declaration. Human rights groups such as the Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-I) said that doctors who worked for the Israeli Prison Services (IPS) had minimal medical qualifications and just followed the orders of the IPS.

Israeli authorities refused to negotiate with the prisoners on any of the issues, including their basic demands relating to family visits and an end to the practice of solitary confinements. President Abbas, who was on an official visit to India in the third week of May, urged the Israeli government to comply with the “humanitarian” demands of the prisoners. He urged the international community to support the prisoners and demanded that Israel respect their rights and human dignity.

In 2013, the late anti-apartheid figure, Ahmed Kathrada, and Fadwa Barghouti launched the International Campaign to Free Marwan Barghouti and all Palestinian Political Prisoners from Robben Island (South Africa), where the notorious apartheid-era prison in which Nelson Mandela and his comrades were incarcerated, is located. In the third week of May, leading South African politicians and Cabinet members announced that they would undertake a one-day fast in solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners. Activists in other parts of the world are also staging solidarity hunger strikes. Students in many European universities have started relay hunger strikes in support of the Palestinian prisoners.