Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strikes continue as Israel violates agreements

5 June 2012

120604-protest-prisoners.jpg

Palestinians call for the release of hunger-striking prisoners Akram Rikhawi and football player Mahmoud Sarsak.

(Nedal Eshtayah / APA images)

Hours before the 64th anniversary of the Nakba, commemorating the ethnic cleansing of more than half of the Palestinian population in the 1940s by Zionist militias, an historic agreement ending a 28-day mass hunger strike was signed by the Israeli Prison Service and the Higher Committee for Prisoners, in the presence of the Egyptian mediator.

The Palestinian prisoners’ mass hunger strike, which began on 17 April (a day that Palestinians commemorate as Prisoners’ Day), was a heartfelt outcry against the arbitrary punishments and gross human rights abuses that the Israeli Prison Service routinely carries out against the prisoners.

The agreement on paper appeared to acquiesce to the three main demands of the prisoners: an end to administrative detention (where a person is detained without any charges brought against him or her, with detention subject to indefinite renewal), the release of 19 prisoners from solitary confinement, and respecting the internationally-recognized right to family visits for the prisoners from Gaza, who haven’t seen their families since 2007 — a form of collective punishment imposed after the capture of an Israeli soldier.

However, once again the realization of the agreement was left for Israel to decide — and since the end of the mass hunger strike in the early hours of 15 May, rumors of Israel reneging on its promises have solidified into facts.

Detentions renewed

The solo hunger strikes of Khader Adnan, Hana al-Shalabi, and five other prisoners who had passed 70 days without food, were in protest of capricious imprisonment — which forced world attention being on to Israel’s indiscriminate use of administrative detention. More than three hundred Palestinian prisoners are administrative detainees, including children and 24 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

The signed agreement led many to believe that Israel would curtail its use of administrative detention, especially after it announced that all administrative detainees would be released at the end of their current detention periods unless substantial evidence was provided against them. However, two weeks after the agreement, more than 25 prisoners have had their detentions renewed without such significant evidence presented.

Among these prisoners is Hussein Abu Kweik, who spent a total of 12 years in prison and survived an assassination attempt that killed his wife and three of his sons in 2002. Abu Kweik’s latest arrest was on 31 May 2011, and his detention has been renewed for another six months.

Husam Khader, a former Fatah member of parliament, was arrested on 2 June 2011, and has also had his detention recently renewed. Mohammad Natshe, a Hamas MP, was given a renewal of four months after a year of administrative detention, Agence France Press reported (“Israel extends prisoners’ administrative detention,” Ahram Online, 27 May 2012).

Samer Barq, who also has Jordanian citizenship, was recently transferred to Ramle prison clinic after restarting his hunger strike on 22 May. He was supposed to be released eight days after the signing of the agreement, but was handed another three months of detention instead, according to the Prisoner’s Club (“Transfer of the hunger-striking prisoner Samer Barq to Ramle prison hospital,” PNN, 28 May 2012 [Arabic]).

Other violations are taking place

Spokesperson Amjad Najjar from the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club asserted that other violations against the prisoners have been taking place, away from the media’s eyes.

“Prisoners have been subjected to humiliating strip searches in the Nafha, Rimon and Naqab prisons,” he said. The agreement was supposed to improve living conditions for the prisoners and end the punitive measures that the Israeli Prison Service carries out against them. “There are a number of prisoners who have been taken into solitary confinement, but we are not sure of their names or numbers at the moment,” Najjar added.

Despite expectations, solitary confinement is still in use too. Dirar Abu Sisi, who was captured in Ukraine while visiting his brother on 19 February 2011, began refusing one meal a day after he was placed in solitary confinement a week after the agreement was signed. Abu Sisi told a lawyer from the Prisoners Club that he would begin refusing two meals a day if he did not get transferred back to the cell division by 31 May. He has stopped taking medication for asthma, blood pressure and a heart condition since 29 May (“The solitarily confined prisoner Dirar Abu Sisi begins gradual hunger strike and stops taking medicine in order to get out of solitary confinement,” PNN, 29 May 2012 [Arabic])

Ma’an News Agency reported on Monday that prisoner Kifah Khatib has been hunger striking for more than 40 days and is in solitary confinement in Shatta prison. The prison spokesperson Sivan Wiezman however denied that there were any hunger strikers in Shatta (“Hunger-striking prisoner ‘collapses in court’”).

Meanwhile, the logistical arrangements for family visits for the prisoners from Gaza, to be resumed again in June after six years, is yet to be decided upon. Israel offered the prisoners from Gaza the chance to see their families for half an hour every two months, which the prisoners unequivocally rejected. Prisoners from the West Bank receive family visits every two weeks for a period of 45 minutes.

“All Israeli policies against Palestinians are entrenched in the spirit of revenge,” said Amaney Dayif, head of the department of prisoners for Physicians for Human Rights-Israel. “Collective punishment is the norm, and naturally with the escalation of Israeli harsh measures comes the escalation of the prisoners’ means of protests.”

Sahar Francis, director of prisoner rights group Addameer, concurred.

“Unfortunately the IPS’ [Israeli Prison Service’s] policies is not to respect the basic human rights of Palestinian prisoners, and tries to take away the prisoner’s dignity after incarceration,” she said. “The IPS’ approach is to treat the Palestinian prisoners as if they are criminals and terrorists, with the suppression and violations against the prisoners being an extension of the process against Palestinian people in general.”

Another mass hunger strike on the horizon?

Will Israel’s contravention of the agreement spark the fires for another mass hunger strike, given the intricate and complicated process that comes with coordinating such a huge ordeal?

“The prisoners have threatened to go back on hunger strike,” Najjar said. “They’ve already informed their lawyers and the IPS … the Egyptian mediator is too busy with the Egyptian elections to take an important role in this.”

Francis drew attention to how a hunger strike is the last weapon in the prisoners’ arsenal.

“There is always dialogue between the prisoners and the IPS regarding the demands of their prisoners, employing legal proceedings,” Francis said. “After dialogue has been exhausted, then a hunger strike is initiated as a last resort. Prisoners coordinate with each other as based on their transfer from one prison to another, from meeting in court rooms or prison hospitals, and through family visits who take the responsibility of disseminating information through newspapers.”

Throughout Israel’s occupation of Palestine, there have been dozens of prisoners’ hunger strikes set to reclaim their basic rights and dignity. Some have failed, whereas others were considered successful. Yet planning for a third mass hunger strike in less than a year’s time is unprecedented.

Many are keen on viewing the agreement between the Israeli Prison Service and the Palestinian prisoners as a victory, overlooking Israel’s infringements in favor for the more general achievement. This may explain why the solo strikes of football player Mahmoud Sarsak (who at the time of publication is on his 80th day of hunger strike) and Akram Rikhawi have gone unnoticed in the media and with little protest in the street.

In a lecture given at the Friends Meetinghouse chapel in Ramallah on 30 May, the high-profile lawyer Jawad Boulos, who is credited with managing the hunger strike deals of Khader Adnan and Hana al-Shalabi, considered that transferring the 19 prisoners from solitary confinement back to the cell divisions was the main success in the agreement.

“Close your eyes for five minutes and imagine spending years not speaking to anyone, not seeing anyone, not having any human interaction, all in a 2 meters by 3 meters cell,” he said. “When you remember prisoners such as Hasan Salameh who has spent 13 years in isolation and have described being back in the company of others as a rebirth, then this agreement is definitely a victorious one.”

Linah Alsaafin is a recent graduate of Birzeit University in the West Bank. She was born in Cardiff, Wales and was raised in England, the United States and Palestine. Her website is http://lifeonbirzeitcampus.blogspot.com/.