Palestinian and israeli protesters demonstrate in support of hunger striking prisoners. (Photo: Rina Castelnuovo / The New York Times)
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Earlier in the year, the US media extensively covered the 66-day hunger strike of a Palestinian named Khader Adnan, who risked his life to protest his detention without charge or trial. Today, there are five more prisoners protesting with their empty stomachs. Yet virtually no one is covering their cases. Why?
Early this year, the long-ignored population of Palestinians warehoused behind Israeli bars broke onto the global stage with the courageous hunger strike of Khader Adnan, who went without food for 66 days to protest his “administrative detention” – a limbo in which he had been held without charge or trial. His protest captured the attention of media around the world and inspired a rash of other strikes, culminating in a mass action by an estimated 2,000 other Palestinian political prisoners.
The dramatic tactics appeared to work: Adnan and the others were released, and the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association reported that the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) agreed “there would be no new administrative detention orders or renewals” (albeit with several caveats).
However, today, more than four months later, the IPS is quietly breaking its promises, and at least five prisoners are once again on hunger strike. Two of them – Ayman Sharawna and Samer al-Issawi – had been released in October 2011 as part of the agreement Israel signed in exchange for the freedom of its captured soldier, Gilad Shalit. They were re-arrested several months later, without any new charges or evidence, and have been on at least a partial strike since July and August, respectively. As this article went to press, their health was seriously deteriorating, with frequent loss of consciousness and muscle control, and calls by Physicians for Human Rights in Israel to allow visits by independent doctors have been ignored.
Another of the hunger strikers, Oday Keilani, has gone without food for more than 40 days, after his own administrative detention – under which he has been held since April 2011 – was extended for another four months, despite the IPS’ promises.
Even those who have merely rallied in support of the prisoners are now being targeted. In October, Ayman Nasser, a researcher with Addameer, was arrested in part for his active participation in solidarity demonstrations. To date, Nasser remains in Israeli detention. At 3 a.m. on Dec. 12, the offices of Addameer and several other Palestinian NGOs were ransacked, and their computers, files and video equipment stolen. Posters of prisoners and hunger strikers were ripped from the walls and strewn around the office.
You wouldn’t know any of this was going on, however, from the “mainstream” Western media. Despite the earlier rush of coverage, the hunger strikers today are starving in virtual silence.
Khaled Waleed, operations coordinator for the UFree Network, which advocates in the European Union for Palestinian political prisoners, believes media coverage isn’t typically what forces Israel to act. However, he is quick to add that it is an important influence on governments that can apply pressure. And Mahmoud Sarsak, the popular Palestinian soccer player who went on hunger strike for 96 days before he was finally released, is convinced that grassroots pressure was critical to his eventual freedom.
“People seem to have lost interest in the hunger strikes now,” laments Waleed, who adds that his organization focuses more on broad issues, like Israel’s growing pattern of “re-arrests.”
“We need a vision that unites everyone, and right now, it’s not clear where that will come from,” he said.
Experts, as well as former and current political prisoners, identify a variety of forces working against the sustained attention needed to bring about real and lasting change in the plight of Palestinian political prisoners: marginalization by the “Arab Spring,” global economic collapse, the Iranian “threat” and elections in several key countries.
Competing With World Events
As Salam Fayyad, prime minister for the Palestinian Authority (PA), told The New York Times earlier this year, “The biggest challenge we face – apart from occupation – is marginalization. This is a direct consequence of the Arab Spring where people are preoccupied with their own domestic affairs. The United States is in an election year and has economic problems, Europe has its worries. We’re in a corner.”
Although the PA managed to gain enough support to win observer status in the United Nations last month, the international “bandwidth” is just not sufficient to accommodate a host of other issues – especially those that require sustained attention – without a very focused, sustained campaign.
Even in the Palestinian Territories, where “solidarity tents” in support of the hunger strikers were constant and vocal for Khader Adnan and the others, there is only intermittent activity this time around. “I think people are just exhausted with the whole situation,” admits Malaka Mohammed, a young activist in Gaza who has been at the forefront of the protest movement there, and helped organize a solidarity rally on Dec. 13. “It’s hard to stay active on everything, especially after Israel’s latest attack on Gaza.”
Salem Hassan Khalil Abu Shab was imprisoned by Israel three times – the last for more than 18 years – and now is back home in Gaza, struggling to fit back into a family that had become independent without him. Twice, he participated in hunger strikes, which he recalls as “the worst thing to have to do, but the only thing we can do to fight back and keep our dignity.” Shab adds, however, that to be successful, strikes need “people on the outside keeping up the pressure.” When other, competing events occur, he acknowledged – like the UN bid and the Israeli attack – the strikes lose their impact. Israel, he believes, is aware of that.
Israel’s Control of the Message
Anat Matar, senior lecturer in philosophy at Tel Aviv University, observed in a report from the International Middle East Media Center that Western reporting is largely based on Israel’s perspective, in which Palestinians are portrayed as security risks rather than political prisoners, and as “militants” and “terrorists,” rather than resistance fighters. Because spokespeople for the Israeli government are easy to access, are relied upon by the likes of President Obama and Secretary Clinton and have 30-second sound-bites at the ready, this same language is repeated in Western media, which regularly describe Palestinian prisoners and fighters as “militants” (or worse yet, “Islamist militants”), rather than “the opposition,” as in Syria.
Richard Falk, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Palestinian territories, writes in his blog: “Israeli hasbara has worked hard over many years to stereotype the Palestinians as ‘terrorists,’ and by doing so to withdraw any sympathy from their victimization, which is portrayed as somehow deserved.”
Khader Adnan’s hunger strike attracted attention in large part because he used Gandhian techniques to challenge the “system,” and no one knew how the story would end: Would Israel let him die? Would he wrest significant concessions from Israel?
However, Adnan didn’t die. He reached a settlement with Israel, dropping his protest in return for early release. Hana Shalabi followed, ending her own strike in exchange for release to Gaza, far from her home in the West Bank. Each of the rest of the hunger strikers followed suit, eventually ending their strike in return for a few weeks or months cut off their detention. The outcome became predictable, and the concessions given in return had plenty of loopholes built in. As Falk writes, “It needs to be understood that Israel retains all the prerogatives to rely on administrative detention in the future and continues to have unmonitored, exclusive control over prison life.”
After the novelty of Adnan, media coverage gradually tapered off as boredom set in. Shalabi, Bilal Diab, Thaer Halahla and the estimated 2,000 other prisoners who joined the hunger strike, mostly for a shorter length of time, continued to generate some attention. But by the time Sarsak upped the ante, it had started to lag. Google Akram Rikhawi, who lasted an amazing 102 consecutive days, and the current strikers Ayman Sharawna and Samer al-Issawi, and few mentions at all are found in “mainstream” American media. In part as a result, the Israeli military appears to have adopted a pattern of doing what it has to do to cut a deal to avoid revival of international attention, then reneging on virtually everything.
No Clear, Compelling “Public Face”
No centrally coordinated, highly visible vehicle exists for tracking who begins hunger striking, when and why, monitoring what Israel has promised and when those commitments are broken and then widely publicizing this information. Reporters interested in the issue must work hard – too hard – to find all the details. As a result, they don’t. Compare that situation to the sophisticated, “one-stop-shop” blog and companion Facebook page run by the Israeli military: www.idfblog.com. Whatever “fact” you could want, it’s there, along with snazzy graphics.
Lack of Leadership
As powerless as Palestinians often feel, it’s a fact that international media attention often follows local coverage. Yet columnist Hussam Kanafani, from the newspaper Al Khaleej, wrote that after Adnan, even Palestinian coverage of the strikers began to decline.
The case of Sarsak is instructive. He was first imprisoned without charge in 2009 and began his hunger strike in March of this year, after his administrative detention was renewed for the sixth time. But the Palestinian football association didn’t raise its voice until June, when it became public knowledge that the once-star player, the youngest to have made it onto the Palestinian national team, had lost 33 percent of his body mass and was said to be suffering from spells of unconsciousness and severe muscle atrophy. Ayat Saafeen, head of the Palestinian Women’s Football Association, admitted that “support was slow on the uptake,” with the organization waiting for a build-up of international solidarity before acting.
Local media coverage lagged as well. Linah Alsaafin explained in Ceasefire magazine that an independent news outlet is still a rarity in Palestine – with most publications owned by political parties or wealthy individuals with political affiliations. The fact that footballer Sarsak did not belong to a political faction (not to Islamic Jihad, as Israeli authorities claimed), was the underlying reason, she wrote, for the half-hearted coverage of his hunger strike by Palestinian media.
“Prisoners have separated according to political party and religion,” Sarsak agreed at a conference on political prisoners in Tunisia, where he is now making his home. “This is very bad for the cause. We need to be acting as one.”
Unity of leadership is one of the key lessons learned by perhaps the most famous hunger-striking prisoners: Irish Republicans who fought the British state in the 1980s. Former hunger striker Pat Sheehan, who was slated to be the 11th political prisoner to die in the chain begun by Bobby Sands in 1981, visited Gaza recently with a delegation of European parliamentarians. He and his fellow former political prisoner Gerry MacLochlainn are very careful to avoid even the appearance of telling Palestinians what to do, or of drawing too close a parallel. Still, history has undeniably shown that some lessons are universal.
“Three factors were critical to our ultimate success,” recalled MacLochlainn. “Unity of leadership; realistic, concrete demands that we all bought into and insisted on as a group; and a willingness to ‘go the distance.’ When you start a hunger strike, participants must be totally committed to taking it to the final end. Otherwise, you won’t be taken seriously.”
To date, unity of leadership has been a challenge for Palestinians, as Sarsak noted. In fact, Addameer’s staff in the West Bank was reportedly told by the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority to stay home rather than attend the conference in Tunisia, due to the dominant role played by Islamist factions in organizing the event. There is cautious optimism, however, that the new sense of unity evident following the latest Israeli attack on Gaza, and the UN vote on observer status for Palestine, will be more than a “flash-in-the-pan.” It will, however, take time, cautions Waleed.
The other question Palestinians must answer is whether striking for individual release is their best strategy, versus negotiating for the collective good. According to Ashraf Hussain, director of international relations for the Ministry of Detainee Affairs in Gaza, the mass hunger strike that attracted more than 2,000 participants in the spring was called by a committee of prisoner leaders inside the system. However, the ongoing strikes by specific prisoners to protest their continuing detentions despite promises of release are actions taken individually.
“It is definitely more effective to act as a group, but how can we not support individuals fighting their own situations as well?” Hussain asked.
The danger, however, is that by doing so, the Palestinians play into the secret agenda of their captors. In the 2011 book, Threat: Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israel, Walid Daka – currently serving a life sentence – observes, “Most of the problems presented and the solutions reached pertain to individual prisoners…. Meetings, study circles and ideological discussions about national problems are much less frequent. Indeed, there [are] an increasing number of prisoners who take up academic studies, but their motivation is self-development and preparation for their own future after their release, rather than collective values and national concerns.”
According to Addameer, more then 4,600 Palestinians remained in Israeli prisons as of Oct. 12 – including 210 who are under the age of 18, 250 who have never been formally charged or tried, and 23 who were democratically elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council. Israel is arresting 11 to 20 more Palestinians every day – up to 7,000 a year.
When the Israeli effort to focus prisoners on narrow personal needs is coupled with the increasing use of technology to separate them from each other and from their “keepers” (a trend chillingly documented in Threat), it’s clear that Palestinians are facing an existential challenge to their very identity as a people and a culture.
Pam Bailey is a journalist and social entrepreneur who reports on Palestine and other “targets” of misbegotten US foreign policy. She teaches journalism/social media & consults on communication strategies in the fight for peace & justice. She is based in Alexandria, VA, and blogs atpaminprogress.tumblr.com.