His fellow prisoner, Ayman Sharawna, is also refusing food. Like Issawi, he is being held by Israel under administrative detention, a system which ignores all due process and interns civilians without charge, trial or sentencing for an indefinite period of time.
Both Issawi and Sharawna are protesting against their arbitrary imprisonment and the brutal conditions under which they, and other prisoners, are held.
Their protest, a peaceful weapon of resistance against Israel’s occupation of their land, has been ignored by the largest state-funded global broadcaster in the world, the BBC.
This is despite the fact that it is not an isolated act of resistance, but part of a mass nonviolent uprising in the form of hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners that began in September 2011 and was further fueled in December that year by Khader Adnan’s refusal to take food.
Inspired by Adnan, other prisoners, both male and female, began hunger strikes. Then, on a single day in 2012 — Palestinian Prisoners’ Day — 1,200 Palestinians held in Israel’s jails began an open-ended hunger strike, a figure which quickly grew to an estimated 2,000.
The men and women refusing food included Palestinian members of parliament, imprisoned by Israel as part of its attempts to crush Palestinian civil society. Mahmoud Sarsak, a member of the Palestinian national football team, jailed, like so many others, without having been charged or tried for any crime, also joined the hunger strikers.
True to form
The BBC, true to form, shunned this extraordinary mass revolt by the Palestinians against the Israeli regime which rules them without their consent.
During the weeks of television and radio silence with which the BBC greeted the simultaneous hunger strike of 2,000 Palestinian prisoners, the UK’s Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) wrote to the BBC’s Director of News, Helen Boaden.
In its letter, PSC pointed out: “In the same period, the BBC has given prominent coverage to the hunger strike of Ukrainian politician, Yulia Tymoshenko, but has ignored the Palestinian MPs [members of parliament] imprisoned by Israel who are on hunger strike. There has also been extensive coverage of Chinese dissident, Chen Guangcheng, but no coverage given to the 2,000 Palestinians who are expressing their opposition to an imposed regime by refusing food.”
More than 5,000 PSC members and activists sent email messages to BBC editors asking for the ordeal of the hunger strikers — some of whom, such as Thaer Halahleh and Bilal Diab, were bleeding from their eyes and gums and vomiting blood — to be covered. A protest demanding the BBC end its silence was held outside the corporation’s headquarters in central London.
Four weeks after the mass hunger strike began, BBC Middle East correspondent Kevin Connolly produced a short report which was aired on television’s News at Ten and News 24, and on a 6pm BBC Radio 4 news bulletin, all on the same day (“Palestinians rally for hunger strikers,” 11 May 2012).
This proved to be the full extent of the BBC’s mainstream broadcast coverage of hunger strikes by 2,000 political prisoners which, if they had taken place in, say, Iran, China or Syria, would hardly have been ignored in the same way.
Bias by omission
On 29 June, Boaden replied to PSC to say she was satisfied with the scale of the coverage and did not agree with PSC’s assertion that the BBC’s failure to give due weight to the mass hunger strike was bias by omission.
Boaden then proceeded to lay out the stringent criteria which the BBC feels Palestinian hunger strikers have to meet in order to be granted coverage on its taxpayer-funded airwaves.
She wrote: “[Hunger strikes] tend to be reported when the hunger strikers are on the point of death or in a grave state of medical crisis; when the hunger strike presents a critical political challenge to the imprisoning authority; and when the strikes inside prison provoke widespread hunger strikes on the outside. Furthermore, there are gradations of hunger strike which influence outcomes.”
According to Boaden’s sliding scale of hunger strikes, the Palestinians’ mass protest ranked as a “managed” hunger strike, because some of the prisoners had taken salts intravenously.
She added: “One of the most important factors in determining the level of coverage was the failure of the hunger strikes to capture the imagination of the Palestinian public. While the Palestinians did not consider the partial hunger strikes or managed hunger strikes important enough to take to the streets in any great numbers, BBC News did not give the campaign prominence.”
Boaden’s reply was extraordinary. She revealed that it is not enough for the BBC that a Palestinian, jailed without due process, denies themselves food for weeks or months, risking death, blindness or permanent organ damage, in order to protest against the denial of their human rights, but unless that hunger strike provokes others, it is not newsworthy.
And if that hunger strike does provoke others, as Khader Adnan’s did, triggering a mass hunger strike of more than 2,000 prisoners, then the BBC demands that Palestinians outside the prisons must also go on hunger strike.
The elderly parents and sister of hunger striker Hana al-Shalabi and the mothers of Thaer Halahleh and Hassan Safadi all started hunger strikes, with Safadi’s mother being hospitalized, as did 50 former prisoners and supporters in Gaza. But this is still not enough for the BBC. There must additionally be people protesting in the streets in “great numbers.”
When this happens, with daily demonstrations outside Ofer prison for a part of 2012 and demonstrations across towns and villages in the West Bank that were met with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon by Israeli forces, when there is a constant flow of visitors to solidarity tents (including that of Samer Issawi’s family, which was recently torn down by Israeli soldiers), the BBC demands still more from the Palestinians before it can deem them worthy of space on its airwaves.
The criteria set out by Boaden has been met many times over in the last 13 months, including the “point of death” she demands of the hunger strikers. Issawi’s health is failing and he suffered further injury after he was savagely beaten by seven Israeli soldiers at the end of December while he was shackled to his wheelchair. He has lost more than half his body weight, his family says, but still does not warrant a mention on the BBC.
Compare this to Yulia Tymoshenko or Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the Bahraini dissident, both of whom received extensive coverage on the BBC when they went on hunger strike last year, despite not meeting the strict and almost inhumane criteria set out by Boaden for their Palestinian counterparts.
Boaden’s other self-imposed demands were also met, including her insistence that the hunger strikes should present a “critical political challenge to the imprisoning authority.”
During the course of the mass hunger strike, Tony Blair, Britain’s former prime minister, called on Israel to “take all necessary measures to prevent a tragic outcome that could have serious implications for stability and security conditions on the ground” (“Tony Blair urges Israel to keep hunger strikers alive,” The Independent, 14 May 2012).
In the aforementioned article in The Independent, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority leader, described the state of affairs as “very dangerous,” adding: “If anyone dies … it would be a disaster and no one could control the situation.”
Members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, also recognized what was at stake. Jamal Zahalka, a Knesset member, said: “If one of the striking prisoners dies, a third intifada will break out” (“Israel warned of volatile situation as Palestinian hunger strikers near death,” Guardian, 13 May 2012).
The circumstances were serious enough for Abbas to appeal to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to intervene. But the prospect of a third intifada does not seem to be enough of a “critical political challenge” for the BBC to end its blackout of a momentous, coordinated uprising against an unwanted, authoritarian regime.
One can only assume that this is because that unwanted regime is the Israeli regime, and the BBC has so often shown that it is unwilling to portray Israel in a negative light.
Even in Kevin Connolly’s short report of 11 May — the only coverage given by the BBC in 13 months of the prisoners’ protests — no Palestinians were interviewed to explain the reasons for the hunger strikes. However, Mark Regev, the Israeli government spokesperson, was brought on to give an Israeli perspective.
He used the opportunity to compare the hunger strikers to “suicide bombers” and falsely asserted that their protest was for an “Islamist cause.” None of this was challenged by a compliant Connolly who ended his report by dismissing the Palestinians’ overtly political cry for help as a “health crisis” in Israel’s jails.
And that is the sole coverage the BBC’s extensive news and radio network has given to the hunger strikers from Khader Adnan’s refusal to take food in December 2011 to the present day.
By consistently ignoring the Palestinian campaign of hunger strikes while giving prominent coverage to hunger strikers in other countries, by making up arbitrary criteria that only the Palestinians have to meet in order to be considered newsworthy by BBC journalists, and by then continuing to shun those hunger strikers even when the harsh criteria has been met, the BBC has shown, yet again, its bias against the Palestinians.
For a broadcaster which has conditions of impartiality written into its royal charter, that is nothing short of a disgrace.
Amena Saleem is active with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in the UK and keeps a close eye on the media’s coverage of Palestine as part of her brief. She has twice driven on convoys to Gaza for PSC. More information on PSC is available at www.palestinecampaign.org.