Hunger strikers shake foundations of Israeli justice system
As midnight approached on April 17, Khader Adnan, a Palestinian political prisoner who made headlines around the world after going on hunger strike for 66 days, was given a hero's welcome as he returned to his home. Fireworks coloured the night sky, horns blared and people on foot, in cars, and on tractors rushed off to receive Adnan at the gates of his village.
"I won't believe he is out of prison until I see him for myself," said his visibly anxious wife, Randa, who had borne a heavy burden during her husband's four-month ordeal. Yet, in a gesture indicative of the leader Adnan has recently become, he refused to be taken to his own home before visiting relatives of those other political prisoners from his village who remained in prison and on hunger strike.
Adnan, who had been detained for four months, was never charged with a criminal offence or presented any evidence of wrongdoing. In addition, as part of the agreement that eventually led to his release, Israel had the ability to bring new evidence against him and put him on trial. By failing to do so in the nearly two months between the end of his hunger strike and his release, Israel tacitly admitted that it lacked such evidence to begin with. It has also exposed once more the ease with which a Palestinian can be taken from his or her home without charge and incarcerated for months or, in the worst cases, even years.
His hunger strike set off a wave of similar protests in Israeli prisons and on the day he gained his freedom, approximately 1,500 Palestinian prisoners began a collective, open-ended hunger strike to protest Israel's continued policy of wide-scale detention and its treatment of prisoners. What has been billed the "War of Empty Stomachs" now has all the makings of a movement.
Although only a minor public figure prior to his arrest, Adnan's plight is one with which almost all Palestinians can intimately connect.
Since Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, over 750,000 Palestinians have been through the Israeli detention system, according to Addameer, a leading prisoners' rights advocacy organisation. Given its small population, which has averaged three million people during that period, that is roughly 25 per cent of the entire Palestinian population in the Palestinian territories and nearly half of all males.
"In Palestinian society, when we talk about prisoners, we talk from the position of knowing rather than just hearing; of being there, of the experience itself. So you can hardly find one Palestinian family who has escaped this kind of ordeal," says Dr Saad Nimr, 53, a professor of Palestinian politics and society at Birzeit University in the West Bank who has spent a total of eight years in prison during his lifetime.
The centrality of the prisoner issue in Palestinian life has virtually no parallel anywhere else in the world. It is almost enough to note that the Palestinian Authority - the semiautonomous body that has governed the Palestinian territories since 1993 - has a ministry of prisoners' affairs and that there are numerous social clubs, organisations and even a museum devoted to this cause.
For years, prisons have substituted as universities for large swathes of the population and provided a base for grassroots political organising. The country's most popular political figure, Marwan Barghouti, is currently serving five life sentences but is still a likely contender for president. After close to 45 years of living under military occupation, where resistance is prized and collaboration with Israel is the ultimate crime, the stigma of prison has been transformed from a basis of disrepute into a badge of honour and, indeed, a source of pride.
Put simply, for Palestinians, the prisoner issue is only a microcosm of life under occupation, where many simply substitute a larger cell for a smaller one. Until they are all freed, there will likely be no dramatic changes inside the prison walls.
Today, there are approximately 4,700 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Like Adnan, more than 300 of these inmates are held in administrative detention, whereby a person is incarcerated for up to six months without charge or trial. After this initial period expires, a military judge can continue to detain the prisoner indefinitely, circumventing any redress to due process.
According to B'Tselem, a leading Israeli human rights NGO, "Administrative detainees are not told the reason for their detention and do not know what evidence is against them. In addition, unlike prisoners who have been sentenced to a specific jail term, after which they are released, administrative detainees do not know when they will go free, and there is no restriction on the length of time they can be held."
Given the scope of offences that are punished by the military justice system in the Palestinian territories, which has a remarkable 99.7 per cent conviction rate, arrest can come at any moment. Imprisonment often stems from any connection to the resistance, including membership of a political faction. Even the Fatah party of the sitting president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is still banned by the Israeli military authorities.
"Every person who tries to resist - no matter how - the control of Israel over him ... can be put in jail," says Abeer Baker, a member of the law faculty at Haifa University and head of the Legal Clinic on Prisoner's Rights.
Khader Adnan, 33, has been arrested eight times over the course of his life. His latest detention began in the early hours of December 17, 2011, when Israeli soldiers raided his home in the village of Arrabeh, near the West Bank city of Jenin. Arrested and blindfolded in front of his pregnant wife and his two young daughters, Adnan was taken to an interrogation centre where he alleges that he was beaten repeatedly. For 22 days, he was kept in detention and interrogated, all the while enduring a hunger strike he initiated the day after his arrest. On January 8, he appeared before a military judge who issued a four-month administrative detention order based on secret evidence.
For the first month of his hunger strike, Adnan received very little attention either inside Palestine or abroad. Unusually, his was a solitary act of resistance in a society where such measures are often taken collectively and usually through political parties. Only when his situation began to decline did people start to respond.
"It wasn't just the work of one group, it was several efforts happening at the same time," says Bisan Ramadan, 22, an activist from Nablus. "During his hunger strike you saw actions from all kinds of people. That was the beauty and strength of it."
For Palestinian prisoners, hunger strikes are an old and celebrated form of resistance. In 1970, prisoners in Ashkelon prison went 15 days without food, leading to the death of one man, and marking the first such strike of the modern era. In 1976, prisoners lasted 45 days. For decades, Palestinians have used collective hunger strikes on numerous occasions to protest their rights. The last major occurrence was in September 2011 and included 400 prisoners protesting the loss of their right to seek a university degree while incarcerated. The strike came to an end the following month when an exchange deal was concluded between Israel and Hamas, leading to the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in return for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2005.
Adnan's case differs markedly from these past examples, most pointedly because he was specifically protesting the institution of administrative detention itself.
"It wasn't about this one person," says Ramadan, "this hunger strike was threatening administrative detention. We felt like if we kept pushing we could bring the whole thing down."
Slowly, Adnan's hunger strike began to elicit a much greater response. Demonstrations started taking place in the Palestinian territories and mainstream media outlets outside the Middle East began to pick up his story. On the opposite end, Israeli society appeared oblivious or uninterested by what was happening and the issue of administrative detention was not debated at all within the Israeli media.
"Most Israelis don't care about anything that is associated with the Palestinians," says Akiva Eldar, a senior columnist at the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. "People were concerned only at the risk of [Adnan] dying in jail and [that] it might cause some violence against them. As far as the Israelis [were] concerned he could die [in prison] as long as it wouldn't cause any problems for them."
Less than a week before Adnan's hunger strike ended, he was joined by another administrative detainee, Hana Shalabi, from the village of Burqin in the West Bank. Shalabi had been one of the prisoners released in exchange for Shalit in October last year, after having been held for over two years on an administrative detention order. Less than four months after her release, she was rearrested when Israeli soldiers raided her small family home in the middle of the night on February 16, just a week after her 30th birthday.
The timing of her arrest and subsequent hunger strike the following day put her in stride with the growing media attention and popular support that had galvanised around Adnan. The pair would later be joined by tens of other prisoners eager to use the hunger strike to fight their own administrative detention.
"I went on hunger strike simply because I am against administrative detention and any kind of unjust arrest against our people," Shalabi said. "I did not know from the start that I would go this far, but my faith, will and determination motivated me to push forward."
On the 66th day of Adnan's hunger strike, as Israel's supreme court was set to rule on the administrative detention order, his lawyers brokered a deal with the authorities by which he would finish the four months of his original imprisonment - minus the interrogation period - at which point he would be either tried with substantive new evidence or would be released. The deal ameliorated a complete showdown with Israel but probably saved Adnan's life. At the time some criticism was raised over taking the burden off Israel, but his lawyers felt that the practice of administrative detention, which had never been seriously questioned by the courts before, would be upheld and they worked swiftly to secure his release.
The news focus quickly turned to Shalabi, who was then finishing the first week of her own hunger strike. Over the next several weeks her case would retain media attention but visible support on the ground failed to gain any real traction. For Shalabi, the long stretch of 44 days would break the momentum and the attention of the media. On top of this, Israel had learnt from its handling of Adnan and changed many of its tactics, preventing Shalabi's family from visiting her for the entire duration of her detention and putting many restrictions on access to lawyers and independent physicians.
"I had to bear all kinds of physical and psychological pressure, solitary confinement, and also negotiating my fate while I wasn't aware of what was going on around me," says Shalabi.
The nature of Adnan and Shalabi's actions posed an interesting dilemma as each hunger striker became responsible for making critical decisions, despite being under extreme duress and in a fragile mental state.
"At the end she didn't have a very free choice," says Sahar Francis, the director of Addameer. "She was in a very bad situation. She was on a hunger strike for 44 days. She was pressured. She was terrified that her case was very serious and that she may stay in administrative detention for a very long time. So with all these circumstances how can she make a free choice?"
Shalabi's hunger strike would come to an end in a swirl of controversy after one of her lawyers, Jawad Bolous, executed a deal with Israel that agreed to a three-year exile to the Gaza Strip in exchange for immediate release. For days afterwards, accusations were lobbed from both sides, including by Shalabi's father, who accused Bolous of manipulating his daughter.
Despite the controversy, the release of Adnan and Shalabi is being viewed as a major victory that could pave the way for other Palestinian political prisoners to protest their detention. The two cases, and those that are continuing today, are raising the profile of Palestinian prisoners.
"I think it's going somewhere, both locally and internationally," says Saad Nimr. "I think they opened a wide gate for the Palestinian people with respect to administrative detention, at least."
While other prisoners have been motivated to take action in recent weeks, the general populace has largely failed to mobilise in support of the prisoners. Attempts at galvanising the public have once again exposed many of the critical problems facing Palestinian society today.
"The relations between political parties today is bad," says Qaddoura Fares, the head of the Palestinian Prisoners Society, who in 1992 led 10,000 prisoners in the largest coordinated hunger strike in Palestinian history. "Every faction has their own ideas about how to run the hunger strike and there is not enough confidence between them anymore. There is suspicion that they will use it for their own aims."
In a statement released by President Mahmoud Abbas, he encouraged the prisoner movement to avoid the factional splits that have plagued the rest of Palestinian society. "Preserve the unity of the prisoners' movement, because you know what divisions and disagreements have done to our homeland and our just cause."
Moreover, most Palestinians remain exhausted from previous efforts to rid themselves of the occupation, particularly the Second Intifada.
Saad Nimr, who has extensive experience organising for prisoner affairs in his time as head of the Campaign to Release Marwan Barghouti and as chief of staff of the ministry of prisoners' affairs, laments this.
"I can't get Palestinians to demonstrate on more than isolated occasions against administrative detention. We know [the issue], we know the Israelis. We don't feel demonstrations [will] do something to change the Israeli mind."
Maybe the most debilitating obstacle of all however, is structural, an outcome of the peace process with Israel. The very existence of the Palestinian Authority, which acts as a buffer between Israel and the Palestinian people, mollifies the tension between the occupier and the occupied without delivering any substantive rights to the latter. The PA not only absorbs much of the responsibility for the occupation from Israel, but also takes the responsibility to resist from average Palestinians. Prior to the establishment of the PA, Palestinians established a large network of civil society organisations that formed the backbone of collective resistance against the occupation. Today, people look to the PA to solve their problems with Israel through negotiations, which have failed to bare any results. Moreover, the Palestinian Authority is averse to mobilising for collective action and is not interested in bringing people into the streets to protests for their rights.
"There is a kind of schizophrenic situation here. You need people to resist the occupation and you have the leadership going to meet them at the same time," says Saad Nimr. "I need the PA to be reformed in a way so that it can be an asset and a support to the Palestinian popular resistance. It is supposed to lead the resistance."
As the current wave of hunger strikes continues, it is difficult to discern where this will all lead. Like other aspects of society, the prisoner movement has been largely absorbed by the PA, the ministry of prisoners' affairs and other connected syndicates. Yet, with the collapse of the peace process, Palestinian politics are on the precipice of change, and it is uncertain how this will affect the spread of popular resistance. Far from the de facto Palestinian capital in Ramallah, Adnan speaks like a man who is trying to build something. Addressing a crowd on the night of his release, he dispels rumours of divisions along political lines, lays out ideas for the future and speaks comprehensively about the need for collective action.
"It is my duty now to expose the suffering of the Palestinian prisoners even more," Adnan later told The National. "This struggle will start from my house, my village, and my people. It should be on the grassroots and the official level, in the West Bank and in Gaza, in [historic Palestine] and should spread to all the free people around the world to spread the word about the prisoners. This issue cannot be ignored any longer."
Despite the tremendous inherent challenges, the opening Adnan helped to create may provide the space necessary to push for meaningful change. In the coming days the latest round of individual hunger strikers will reach the end of the road and Israel will be forced to choose between releasing them and letting them die in jail, the consequences of which could be massive both inside the territories and abroad.
"[For] four months Palestinian prisoners have been revolting against their detention," he said with defiance. "This occupation does not need thousands to shake it, it only needs 10 men who truly believe."
Omar H. Rahman is a journalist currently based in Palestine
Published: April 27, 2012 04:00 AM