With a certain amount of fanfare in Israel and Palestine, although still severely underreported by the world media and relatively ignored by the leading watchdog human rights NGOs, it was observed with contradictory spins that the Palestinian hunger strikes had been brought to an end by agreement between the strikers and Israel. At least, that is what most of us believed who were following this narrative from outside the region, but like so much else in the region, our understanding was a half-truth, if that. Whether Israel abides by its assurances remains to be seen, and although these strikes were courageous acts of nonviolent resistance, it is not clear at this point whether they will have any longer term effects on the Israel’s occupation, arrest, and prison policy, or on the wider Palestinian struggle.
Two things are certain, however. First, a much wider awareness that Israel’s reliance on administrative detention, its abusive arrest procedures, and its prison system deserves wider scrutiny than in the past, and that this dimension of the prolonged occupation of Palestine has been responsible for inflicting great suffering on many Palestinians and their families ever since 1967. Whether such a structure of imprisonment of an occupied people should be viewed as a hitherto neglected dimension of state terrorism is an open question that should be further investigated. Secondly, that the hunger strike as a mode of resistance is now part of the Palestinian culture of resistance, and an option that engages Palestinian political consciousness in manner that did not exist prior to Khader Adnan’s 66 day hunger strike initiated on December 17, 2011.
There were parallel and overlapping strikes: A sequence of long-term strikes, first, Adnan, followed by Hana Shalabi, then Thaer Halahleh and Bilal Diab, and maybe others, focusing on humiliating and abusive arrest procedures, as well as administration detention as a practice; and then a second wave of strikes, commencing on April 17, 2012, Palestine Prisoners Day and ending 30 days later on the eve of the 2012 Nakba observance. This latter protest involved more than 1600 Palestinian prisoners, who were initially inspired by the Adnan and Shalabi strikes, and focused their challenge on deplorable prison conditions.
Supposedly Israeli prison authorities agreed under the pressure of these latter strikes to reduce reliance on solitary confinement in its prisons and to allow more family visits, especially from Gaza. Gaza prisoners had been denied such visits for years as an unlawful reprisal mandated by the Knesset in angry reaction to the capture of the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. What was this pressure? It was not moral suasion. It seemed to be a calculated decision by Israeli prison authorities that it would be better to make small concessions than risk angry reactions to the death of any hunger strikers. The debate in the Israeli press was entirely pragmatic: whether it was worse to have bad publicity or to show weakness by giving in. Israel only seemed to give in. It needs to be understood that Israel retains all the prerogatives to rely on administrative detention in the future and continuing to have unmonitored exclusive control over prison life.
In the background it should be appreciated that the whole structure of this Israeli prison system violates the Fourth Geneva Convention that explicitly forbids the transfer of prisoners from an occupied territory to the territory of the occupier.
These uncertainties about the results of these past strikes should certainly be kept in mind. What is presently of more urgent concern is the failure even to realize that long-term hunger strikes were never ended by at least two prisoners, Mahmoud Sarsak, without food for 70 days, and Akram Rikhawi on strike for 40 days. Both are, as could hardly be otherwise, are currently in danger of dying, and yet hardly anybody seems to know. Sarsak who is 25 years of age and a resident of the Rafah Refugee Camp in Gaza is hardly a nobody. When arrested in July 2009 he was a member of the Palestine National Football Team on his way to a match in the West Bank. He was arrested under the ‘Unlawful Combatants Law,’ which offers a person detained even less protection than is provided by ‘administrative detention.’ It is aimed at Palestinians living in Gaza, a part of Palestine that is treated by Israel (but not the international community) as no longer occupied since Sharon’s ‘disengagement plan’ was implemented in 2005. Iman Sarsak has bemoaned his brother’s fate, “My family never would have imagined that Mahmoud would have been imprisoned by Israel. Why, really why?”
There is reason to believe that rather than some conjured up security concern, Sarsak was arrested as part of a broader effort to demoralize the Palestinians, especially those long entrapped in Gaza. During the savage attacks on Gaza at the end of 2008 (‘Operation Cast Lead’) the national stadium used for football and the offices of the Palestine Football Association were targeted and destroyed, and three members of the Palestine team killed. All along, the team has been handicapped by curfews, checkpoints, and harassments, as well as the blockade of Gaza, that has forced the team to forfeit many games. The goalkeeper, Omar Abu Rwayyes has said, “If you degrade the national team you degrade the idea that there could ever be a nation.” Football, what we Americans call soccer, plays a vital symbolic role in the self-esteem and national consciousness of peoples throughout the Arab world, and elsewhere in the South, to a degree unimaginable for even a sports crazy country like the United States.
There has been some slight notice taken of the plight of the Palestinian team in the football world. A few years ago, Michel Piatini, President of FIFA, warned Israel that it was risking its own membership in the world association if it continued to interfere with the Palestinian efforts to field the best possible team for international competition. But as with many international gestures of protest against Israel, there was no follow through, nullifying the original impulse. In fact, a disturbing reversal of approach took place. Not long afterwards, Piatini actually presided over a process that awarded Israel the honor of hosting the 2013 Under-21 European Championships. A British NGO, ‘Soccer Without Borders’ was not so easily seduced, issuing a declaration urging a boycott of the event in Israel, declaring that its organization “stands in solidarity with Mahmoud Sarsak and all Palestinian political prisoners.”
As is usually the case, the Israeli response in self-justifying and cynical. A Shin Bet official insisted that Israel “can’t play by the rules of bridge if everyone else is playing rugby.” This kind of assertion papers over the degree to which Israeli society in recent years has enjoyed peace, prosperity, and security while Palestinians have been enduring the rigors of a cruel occupation and the severe vulnerabilities of a rightless existence. Palestinians have also been experiencing the split reality of observing a set of protective laws applied Israeli settlers (all of whom are part of an unlawful enterprise) and an unregulated military structure applied arbitrarily to the indigenous residents of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.
With national athletes being such objects of interest it shows how effective is this ‘politics of invisibility’ that keeps the world from knowing the harm being done to the Palestinian people and how they are resisting, often at great risk and self-sacrifice, as epitomized by these long hunger strikes. One can be certain that if such repressive measures were taken by China or Myanmar there would be a mighty cascade of interest, coupled with high minded denunciations from the global bully pulpits of political leaders and an array of moral authority figures. But when the Palestinians experience abuse or resist by reliance on brave forms of nonviolence there is a posture of almost total disregard, and if a few voices are raised, such as that of Archbishop Tutu it is either ignored because his witness is treated as partisan or according to Israel’s more zealous defenders, he is discredited by being alleged to be ‘anti-Semite,’ a denunciation whose meaning has been conflated so as to apply to any critic of Israel. Even such a globally respected figure as Jimmy Carter could not escape the wrath of Israeli loyalists merely because the word ‘apartheid’ in the title of a book urging a just peace between the two peoples.
The politics of invisibility is cruel and harmful. It is cruel because it does not acknowledge a pattern of injustice because the victims have been effectively stigmatized. It is harmful because it sends a strong signal that victimization will only be given some sort of visibility if it shocks the conscience by its violence against those who seem innocent. Such visibility has a largely negative and stereotyping impact, allowing the oppressor to escalate state violence without risking any kind of backlash or even notice, and validating the perception of the victim population as undeserving, and even as evil endorsers of an ethos of terrorism. 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. These hunger strikers, despite all indications to the contrary, are so described, attributing their supposed association with Islamic Jihad as synonymous with an embrace of terrorism. A more objective look at the evidence suggests that Islamic Jihad has itself for several years abandoned tactics of violence against civilian targets, and is part of a broader shift in Palestinian tactics of resistance in the direction of nonviolence. Such shifts are either totally ignored by the politics of invisibility or there is a refusal to acknowledge the shift so as to keep the negative stereotype before the public.
It is one more challenge to global civil society to do what international law is currently incapable of doing: treat equals equally. If the world media renders visible the plight of Chinese human rights activists who are abused by the state, might not at least human rights NGOs note this emergency plight of Palestinian hunger strikers on the edge of death? And if these NGOs are afraid to do so, should not those with eyes able to see such torment, start screaming at the top of our lungs?