Little attention paid to Palestinians on hunger strikes

JERUSALEM // Khader Adnan went 66 days without eating this year - one of the longest hunger strikes in Palestinian history. Hana Shalabi, detained in an Israeli jail without charge or trial, has gone 42 days without food.

Yet their protests have garnered little attention from Palestinians, let alone Israelis.

Observers attribute it to apathy and a lack of media attention.

"Most of the people in the general public don't know about the hunger strikers," said Abdul Kassem, a political science professor at Nablus's Al Najjah University.

That includes Palestinians, he said, even though most of them are familiar with the reason Ms Shalabi and Mr Adnan have chosen self-imposed starvation. Both are protesting against Israel's use of administrative detention that allows it to hold people they consider a security risk for indefinite periods of time without charging them or putting them on trial. The two are said by Israel to be members of the militant Islamic Jihad, although both have denied this.

As many as 300 Palestinians are thought to be held in administrative detention. Rights activists say international law allows this practice only in exceptional cases and that Israel blatantly violates these restrictions.

But most Palestinians are concerned with other matters, Mr Kassem said.

"Most people in the West Bank have been pushed away from seriously looking at these pressing national problems and are instead focused on consumption and financial well-being," he said.

He blames the Palestinian Authority (PA) for failing to rally support for Ms Shalabi, suggesting the PA prefers to direct attention away from its inability to stop Israel from using the detention practice.

"The PA prefers fostering a mentality of consumption rather than liberation," said Mr Kassem about the PA's preference for focusing on economic reform than opposition to Israeli policies.

Mr Adnan ended his strike in February after negotiating a deal with Israel for his release next month. On Sunday, Ms Shalabi's appeal for release was rejected by an Israeli military judge.

The few Israeli news reports on either Ms Shalabi or Mr Adnan link them with militant activities but rarely mention the circumstances of their detention.

"The discourse on human rights and civil rights is not part of mainstream Israeli society and mainstream Israeli media, unfortunately," said Akiva Eldar, a columnist for Israel's Haaretz newspaper.

He blamed the lack of general Israeli interest on the country's "siege mentality", which has been fostered under the right-wing, pro-settler government of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister.

"It's a situation where the occupier feels it's the victim," Mr Eldar said. He described the reaction of those Israelis aware of Ms Shalabi and Mr Adnan as: "We gave them [Palestinians] Gaza. We offered them the best deal at Camp David. And then they starve themselves to death? It's not our problem."

Ms Shalani has refused a deal with Israeli authorities that would have shortened her time in detention, her parents said in an interview last week. They said she would continue her strike until the charges against her are revealed or she is released at the end of her six-month detention in June.

But without more support, it is unclear whether her protest will have much impact, said George Giacaman, a professor at Birzeit University's democracy and human-rights programme.

"Hunger strikes can be effective if there is popular support and if there is a mobilisation of support behind them," he said. In Ms Shalabi's case, he said: "That's not the case yet".

That has frustrated Palestinian activists who are trying to promote non-violent forms of resisting Israel. Their efforts deserve more appreciation - and attention -- abroad, they complain.

"The hunger strike is one of the best non-violent tools to resist oppression for your rights," said Issa Amro, an activist from Hebron.

Dozens of Palestinians in administrative detention have reportedly joined Ms Shalabi in her hunger strike. But there has been little coverage abroad.

Richard Falk, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, said in a column published on Al Jazeera's website last week that the hunger strikes "have been met with silence or indifference" despite "frequent mentoring to Palestinians by liberals in the West to rely on non-violent tactics of resistance".

He called on the international community to "do more than stand and watch as this tragic drama plays itself out".

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