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The hunger strike is over - but what was the damage

  • Hungerstrike
As if Israel doesn’t have enough problems, here’s another one to add to the list. What to do when more than 1 000 Palestinian prisoners inside your jails go on hunger strike - which they did some 40 days ago in a nationwide protest over conditions behind Israeli bars.
by PAULA SLIER | Jun 02, 2017

The strike ended this past weekend after an agreement was reached between the Israel Prison Service, the Palestinian Authority and the Red Cross.

Jerusalem says no negotiations took place and instead “understandings” were reached. Palestinians insist negotiations did transpire and their strike was a success. That difference is important.

Palestinians regard their prisoners as national heroes. Over the past 50 years, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been jailed by Israel at one time or another.

I have yet to meet a Palestinian family who doesn't have at least one relative who hasn’t spent time in an Israeli prison. At the moment, there are more than 6 000 Palestinians behind Israeli bars on charges ranging from throwing stones, to possessing weapons and wounding or killing Israeli civilians and soldiers. They all relate to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

During the six weeks of the hunger strike, thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in Gaza and the West Bank in a show of solidarity. On several occasions clashes broke out with Israeli soldiers.

A hashtag #SaltWaterChallenge started trending on Twitter with videos of people drinking saltwater in support of the one glass of saltwater prisoners were consuming each day.

But most Israelis have little sympathy for Palestinian prisoners and believe they are getting what they deserve. Out of principle, Jerusalem refuses to negotiate their demands because, as the country’s public security minister, Gilad Erdan, recently said, they were “terrorists and incarcerated murderers” and their conditions were in line with accepted norms.

The Israeli Defence Ministry agency responsible for administering civilian affairs in the West Bank and the crossings with Gaza, COGAT, released a report arguing that Palestinian security prisoners were treated better than prisoners elsewhere in the region and even in most Western countries.

As a form of protest, a hunger strike is nothing new and many observers argue that a significant portion of the rights Palestinian prisoners currently have in Israeli jails were obtained in this way.

Although starving oneself hurts the person refusing food more than who or what they are protesting against, hunger strikes assure a moral high ground and good publicity.

And this hunger strike became the longest and largest of such protests since 1967. More than 1 500 Palestinian prisoners embarked on it back in April and it was led by the highest profile Palestinian prisoner in an Israeli jail, Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences.

The compromise deal that was subsequently agreed to will see increased prisoner visitation rights and other prisoner demands such as access to telephones, improved medical care and an end to punitive solitary confinement being considered.

So, did Israel capitulate? The Palestinians think so. But it’s a hard position for the Israelis to be in and the last thing Jerusalem wants is for a prisoner to die or be irreversibly brain damaged on her watch. Eighteen prisoners were hospitalised during this strike.

Mohammed Allen, a Palestinian lawyer affiliated with the Islamic Jihad militant organisation, made headlines two years ago when he embarked on a two-month-long hunger strike that nearly killed him. He was protesting a year of Israeli detention without charge or trial, a controversial practice Jerusalem employs.

I met his family outside his Israeli hospital ward where he’d temporarily lost consciousness and had been put on life support. His family implored the hospital staff to respect his wishes not be force-fed. It was a fundamental human right, they argued, and being force-fed would undermine his hunger strike.

International law is unclear on the topic, neither banning force-feeding outright, nor mandating it.

Israeli legislation is controversial and allows district court judges to authorise force-feeding inmates against their will, but the Israel Medical Association has banned its members from doing so, arguing it’s unethical and akin to torture.

Now the prison authorities are considering hiring foreign medical staff to bypass Israeli doctors if force-feeding is the only way to keep a prisoner alive.

Israelis argue that this strike had nothing to do with prison conditions. They’ve accused Barghouti of cynically exploiting his fellow prisoners for his own personal gains; to secure his position as a possible successor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

During the strike, the prison services released a video it insisted was authentic, showing Barghouti breaking his fast by eating cookies and a candy bar they’d left in his cell.

Palestinians insisted the video was a fabrication. It caused an uproar, especially after a still image of the video was later used in an advertisement on the Facebook page of Pizza Hut’s Israeli branch. The caption asked Barghouti if he wouldn’t rather have broken his fast with pizza. The company later apologised.

A group of Israeli right-wing activists also tried to exacerbate tensions when they held a braai in front of a prison to taunt those on strike, with the smell of the meat.

There have been individual cases in the past, of Palestinian hunger strikers whose detention terms were shortened or not renewed, after they were hospitalised in critical condition. There are no easy answers and no doubt Israel will continue to grapple with the ethics and appropriate response to this age-old form of protest. 

Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of NewshoundMedia and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers.

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