By Yara M. Asi, The New Arab, 23 September 2022
In the face of a brutal occupation and unjust imprisonment that strips them of their bodily autonomy, Palestinian prisoners use individual and collective hunger strikes to reclaim their agency from the Israeli regime, writes Yara M. Asi.
Ahmed Manasra was only 13 years old when he was arrested in 2015, accused of being part of a stabbing attack on an Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem. He was interrogated without his parents or a lawyer, and reportedly subject to “ill treatment” during the process.
Although the courts found that Ahmed did not participate in the attack, he was still convicted of attempted murder in 2016, and has been imprisoned ever since, including in solitary confinement since November 2021.
Ahmed has since been diagnosed with schizophrenia and is suffering from severe depression. “He should have been released a long time ago, yet he remains in unnecessary suffering in Israeli prisons,” argued the Amnesty International director for the MENA region.
Ahmed is one of about 12,000 Palestinian children imprisoned by Israel since 2000, and one of the 4,500 Palestinians currently held in Israeli prisons. Of these prisoners, more than 500 are under administrative detention (meaning they are held without a trial or even charges).
Detention conditions for all these prisoners, regardless of age or offense, are widely recognized as cruel and inhumane, with reports of torture (including extended solitary confinement, long-term shackling, intimidation and threats, and sleep deprivation), punitive strip searches, dirty and overcrowded cells, lack of access to a lawyer or family members, and, for many, not even being told of the reason for their detainment.
While many of these reports come from Palestinian or international organizations, like Addameer (a Palestinian prisoner support association), Amnesty, and Human Rights Watch, they have been confirmed by multiple Israeli sources and groups, including the country’s own Public Defense Office.
Yet, as with all aspects of Israel’s stifling occupation, aside from appeals by human rights organizations and occasional recycled statements of concern from politicians in the USA, European Union, and elsewhere, Palestinians have no recourse for this unjust system.
Aside from the fact that, according to the United Nations General Assembly Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, “All prisoners shall be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings,” Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza live under occupation, with Israel as the Occupying Power.
These Palestinians cannot vote for Israeli politicians or to change Israeli policies. They are subject to Israeli military courts (including children), and these cases almost always end in convictions. Families who wish to visit their loved ones must apply for Israeli permits to do so, and they are often denied.
In fact, imprisoning Palestinians that are not citizens of Israel in Israeli jails is tantamount to population transfers, in blatant violation of Article 49 of the Geneva Conventions IV. Indeed, this is an entirely Israeli system, over which Palestinians have no control, and an illegal one at that.
There is one area, however, where these prisoners can maintain control—their bodies. And so, for decades, Palestinian prisoners have engaged in either individual or collective hunger strikes, a form of non-violent resistance, to protest their inhumane treatment, gain broad attention to their plight, and potentially win concessions from their captors, such as family and lawyer visits, health care, and release.
Such an action—physically harming oneself to potentially receive help or reprieve—is a last-ditch effort, an act of desperation. Of course, hunger strikes are not limited to Palestinians, and have been employed by many marginalized groups throughout history. Yet the ongoing poor treatment of Palestinians, and the impunity afforded to Israel despite decades of well-documented violations, have made them an integral part of Palestinian resistance.
As one former prisoner, who went on a 131-day hunger strike in 2021, explained to the New York Times, “We consider it a battle, but you battle with your stomach.”
As with hunger strikes throughout history across geographies, Israel has consistently shown that these are among the only useful tools available for imprisoned Palestinians. Early this month, Khalil Awawdeh ended his hunger strike of nearly six months, protesting his administrative detention. His health suffered dramatically, with doctors reporting he already had neurological damage and was nearing death.
Israel eventually agreed to release him in October. Again, Awawdeh was never charged with anything. He is one of many Palestinians whose hunger strike ended with a release, but while these prisoners may have won their battle, they often suffer the health consequences for the rest of their lives, in part due to long-term vitamin deficiencies as a result of what is essentially starvation.
Although force feeding is recognized as a form of torture, an Israeli law passed in 2015 permits a judge to allow force feeding prisoners in some cases. This policy was widely condemned, including within Israel, but supported by multiple Israeli military and political officials and even by well-regarded Israeli scholars, including many that purport to be experts on health and ethics.
According to a member of the Israeli branch of Physicians for Human Rights, however, "They do not care for the welfare of the prisoners. They just want him not to become a symbol or martyr."
The plight of Palestinian prisoners suffering in Israeli jails is just one piece of the subjugation and violence experienced by Palestinians at the hands of their occupier. While a hunger strike may get a particular prisoner in the news and may even result in that prisoner receiving better treatment or even release, ultimately these strikes cannot change the system that controls their lives, and of which they have no control over.
Accountability for the entire Israeli structure of dominance and control over Palestinians, recognized by an increasing number of legal and human rights experts and entities as apartheid, is the first tangible step in getting these prisoners, their families, and all Palestinians justice.
Yara M. Asi, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Global Health Management and Informatics at the University of Central Florida, a Visiting Scholar at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, and a US Fulbright Scholar to the West Bank.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.