Palestinian detainees’ empty stomachs are stronger than their jailers

Khader Adnan took the heavy weight of 320 prisoners held in Israeli administrative detention — without charge or trial — on his shoulders. He went on hunger strike for a record 66 days to protest this unjust policy.

His battle of an empty stomach wasn’t only a reminder to free souls around the world that we are real people who deserve free and dignified lives, but also a message to those who share his suffering and injustice that they have a weapon stronger than the jailers’ arms: determination. Hana al-Shalabi followed in his steps and starved herself for 44 days. After confronting Israel’s inhumane policies, Khader and Hana have become symbols of defiance and sources of inspiration and strength for our political prisoners to continue resisting injustice.

The mother of the detainees Bilal and Azzam Diab holding Bilal’s picture who is on hunger strike for 55 days

Mohamoud Mattar

More heroes have arisen behind bars. Bilal Diab, a 27-year-old man from Jenin, is one of them. In 2003, he was imprisoned for 80 months.

After completing his sentence, he was re-arrested aggressively after midnight less than a year after his release, causing panic among neighbors. Then he received an administrative detention order for six months on 25 August 2011, based on “secret information” which neither Bilal nor his lawyer were permitted to see, leaving him no other lawful means to defend himself.

According to his detention order, he was supposed to be released on 25 February. But it was renewed, leading Bilal to rebel and defend himself by launching an open-ended hunger strike. Azzam Diab, Bilal’s brother who was sentenced to life, is on the 23rd day of his hunger strike in solidarity with his brother Bilal. It is hard to imagine how their mother manages to remain strong while two of her sons are inside Israel’s prisons. Both are dying to live.

Thaer Halahla, 34-years-old, from Hrsan, near Hebron, is another hunger striker who joined Bilal on the same day, 29 February, to protest the renewal of an administrative detention order against him. Thaer was re-arrested after two weeks of his marriage. He had previously been held under administrative detention four times. His imprisonment forced him to leave his pregnant wife and baby girl behind. His 22-month-old daughter was born while he was in prison, and she has never had a chance to meet her father. At the beginning of January 2012, his administrative detention order was extended a third consecutive time for an additional six months. Desperate to be free, re-unite with his family, and hug his daughter for the first time, he has been on hunger strike 55 days so far.

Addameer, the prisoners’ rights organization, reported that on 21 March, Bilal and Thaer were transferred to the medical center in Ramle prison after their health began to deteriorate. Both are currently being held in isolated cells, suffer from medical neglect under difficult conditions.  Thaer’s lawyer stated that he saw him vomiting blood from his nose and mouth and that he has difficulty speaking. As for Bilal, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-Israel) noted that “after losing consciousness a number of times, Mr Diab was hospitalized twice at Assaf Harofeh Hospital, but was subsequently returned to [Ramle prison medical center].”

Eight other prisoners have reached dangerous stages of their hunger strikes, including Haddan Safadi (49 days), Omar Abu Shalal (47 days), Jaafar Azzedine (32 days), and Ahmad Saqer, the longest-held administrative detainee (36 days). Resistance against the administrative detention policy inside prisons has also taken other forms. Mohammed Suleiman, a thalassemia patient, is refusing medical treatment to protest an administrative detention order that has been renewed three times. He also refuses to take blood tests.

Three other administrative detainees have also been moved to Ramle prison medical center: Hassan Safadi, Omar Abu Shalal and Jaafar Azzedine, on their 45th, 43rd, and 28th days of hunger strike respectively. Ahmad Saqer, the longest-held current administrative detainee, is on the 32nd day of his hunger strike.

On Prisoners’ Day (17 April) Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons launched a mass hunger strike after a wave of individual hunger strikes over the past few months. This collective hunger strike follows the 22-day campaign of disobedience and mass hunger strike, launched at the end of September 2011 to protest cruel conditions and an escalating series of punitive measures against Palestinian prisoners such as solitary confinement, a ban on visits from family and lawyers, and confiscations of prisoners’ possessions. The Israeli Prison Service promised to meet prisoners’ demands within three months if they ended their hunger strike. Six months have passed without any change. So prisoners have re-launched their hunger strikes to demand their most basic rights.

Loai Odeh is on the very left during a family visit

Loai Odeh
A striker’s diary

Loai Odeh, a former prisoner and my best friend, whom I am very proud to have met after his release, joined that campaign of disobedience until the prisoner swap deal between Israel and Hamas on 18 October. Then he was released, and expelled from Jerusalem to Gaza after 10 years of imprisonment. Since his release, the prisoners he left behind have been his main concern. He always attends events in solidarity with them. He has been my main resource every time I had a question or needed to enrich my knowledge about prisoners’ conditions.

While following his posts on Facebook, I noticed that he had written new ”status” updates taking the form of a striker’s diaries while recalling his experience. This surprised me, as it has seldom happened since he opened his account. The diary of the fourth day was the most touching and important for everyone to read, so I want to share it in the hope that it will encourage readers to act.

“Today is the fourth day of challenge and championship,” Loai wrote. “Today, silence begins to spread all over. By now, the striker tends to be silent and stop talking. All the voices around him seem loud. He becomes unable to join their discussions. As days pass, his ability to hear voices shrinks, expect for these which lift the spirit up and strengthens souls and hearts.  These voices are mainly the ones that bring news about popular support for their battle. This news becomes the source of energy, the strongest motivation for them to remain steadfast.”

Israel’s attempts to demoralize prisoners and break their strikes

Discussing the typical response to hunger strikes from the Israeli Prison Service, he stated, “Our enemy is fully aware of that. Israel spells its fascist generosity against our heroes. They set up speakers and raise the volume to its loudest, constantly playing Hebrew music and news that will depress their spirits. They also distribute special news about them, like claims about the declining number of hunger strikers and names of those who have broken their fasts. They also do their best to give hunger strikers the impression that life outside is moving on normally and no one there cares about them.

“However, all these inhumane attempts fail once a prisoner returns from a visit with his lawyer to tell them about popular events held locally and internationally to support them and their just cause, ” he said. “So don’t ever underestimate any activity you do, as they have small, smuggled radios with which they follow the news. Even children’s protests increase their inner determination to achieve their goals, as they feel that their responsibilities have broadened to include children, the future generation, who have spiritually joined their battle.”

He ended by saying, “We have faith in your ability to win and we are with you until victory!”

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"Sorry, the blog at palestinefrommyeyes.blogspot.com has been removed."

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I think Ahmad Saqer was released.

Why do not you write such great articles in Arabic?

I feel that we need to combine our efforts to support these heroes. As about 2000 heroes decided to continue their hunger strike until victory or death, at least 20000 people outside should be their voices. 20000 people peacefully marching every day should be able to win the media and cause serious problems in the economy of the occupier. The occupation forces cannot fight peaceful protests now on Fridays. What would happen if these protest become daily and the number of people and villages joining become larger?
People should lead the struggle not the regimes.

Shahd Abusalama

Shahd Abusalama's picture

Shahd Abusalama is a Palestinian artist from Gaza and the author of Palestine from My Eyes: Una blogger a Gaza, an Italian translation of her blog which reflects on different day-to-day political issues and injustices endured by Palestinians under the grip of the Israeli colonial occupation. She recently completed her MA studies in Media and the Middle East at Univerisity of London, SOAS. She can always be followed at @shahdabusalama.