On March 29, as this article was being prepared for publication, Hana Shalabi ended her hunger strike after 43 days. She will be released from prison and exiled to the Gaza Strip
On March 25, an Israeli military court rejected Palestinian political prisoner Hana Shalabi’s appeal to be released from four months of confinement without charge. The court refused to release Shalabi despite the fact that she had, at that time, been on hunger strike for 39 days. Her struggle and that of an earlier, successful hunger strike by another prisoner, Khader Adnan, have inspired what may turn into a mass hunger strike inside the prisons of Israel.
Shalabi was being held under “administrative detention,” a policy that allows Israeli military courts to order an individual to be imprisoned for up to six months without charging them with any crime, and without presenting any evidence to either the prisoner or their attorney. The detentions can be renewed by the court that initially issued them, so the detentions are actually open-ended. A prisoner could theoretically remain under “administrative detention” his or her entire life.
In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the situation is even worse. Any Israeli military commander can issue administrative detention to anyone for the first six months, although the detention can only be renewed by a Defense Minister. According to a study by B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, there were 320 Palestinians being held under administrative detention as of Feb. 29, 2012.
Shalabi was placed in detention on Feb. 16, 2012. The military court that issued the order to hold her claimed she “posed a threat to the area,” but no specific allegations were ever made. This was not the first time she had been detained. Previously she was held without charge for two years before being released in exchange for the release of a captured Israeli soldier. Shalabi knew from first-hand experience that administrative detention could be endless. She also knew that Khader Adnan, another Palestinian victim of administrative detention, had recently fought for and won his release after going on hunger strike.
Khader Adnan won his release
Adnan was arrested on Dec. 17, 2011, and was subjected to police brutality during an interrogation that even the Israeli police acknowledge failed to establish any charge under which to arrest him. So, rather than arrest him, the authorities placed Adnan under administrative detention the day after his initial arrest. He immediately began a hunger strike to demand his release. There were daily protests outside the prison where he was shackled to a bed by his arms and legs. Protests spread throughout Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
The furor over Adnan’s hunger strike ultimately pressured the Israeli Supreme Court to schedule a review of the application of administrative detention in Adnan’s case. To spare the Supreme Court a discussion on the legality of the practice, however, Israeli authorities promised not to seek a renewal of Adnan’s administrative detention, and to release him on April 17. Near death after 66 days without eating, Adnan agreed to end his strike.
Shalabi took inspiration from Adnan’s struggle and began her own hunger strike, demanding her immediate release. While her detention was shortened from six to four months, the Israeli authorities refused to release her. After 41 days without eating, Shalabi was near death. She was hospitalized on March 19.
Since Shalabi’s began her hunger strike, more and more Palestinian political prisoners have started following suit. Estimates vary between 25 and 30 prisoners currently refusing food, and it is believed that more will join in April. At least one other prisoner, Tha’ir Halahleh, also in administrative detention, has been hospitalized. There were massive one-day hunger strikes involving hundreds of prisoners on March 24 and 28, and one is planned for April 1.
Many of the strikers are protesting the practice of administrative detention. Other prisoners are demanding the end of physical abuse by guards, better access to medical care and the abolition of solitary confinement. Still others are demanding to be formally recognised as prisoners of war rather than criminals.
It will, of course, be a tragedy and a crime of the Zionist state if any of the hunger strikers die. But it would be wrong to think of them simply as victims of Israeli cruelty. The hunger strike has long been a desperate, but effective means for prisoners to demand dignity. Palestinian protesters outside the prisons where the strikes have been taking place have been carrying pictures of Bobby Sands, a hero of the Irish Republican movement who led an important hunger strike in 1981. Hunger strikers inside the Israeli jails have claimed Sands as their primary inspiration.
Irish hunger strike served as inspiration
In 1976, the British government stripped captured soldiers in the Irish Republican Army of prisoner-of-war status. Captured fighters were forced to wear prison clothes and do prison labor and were housed with non-political prisoners. Physical abuse and the use of solitary confinement were commonplace. In 1980, seven IRA prisoners began a hunger strike at the same time to demand the reinstatement of their POW status. After a 53-day strike, the British government was forced to issue a document reinstating POW status. But, while the document was in transit to Belfast, the strikers called off their action, thinking that one of their members was on the verge of death.
Sands, the elected leader of IRA prisoners in Long Kesh prison, decided in 1981 to transform the strategy of the hunger strike, and have only one prisoner at a time go on strike with the promise that another political prisoner would replace him as the initial striker neared death. Sands was the first to refuse food, and he died after 66 days of hunger striking. Nine other men would also die as Margaret Thatcher’s government refused to grant the soldiers POW status. But the militant demonstration of outrage by the Irish masses forced the government to grant POW status a few months after the end of the hunger strike. The self-sacrifice of Sands and his comrades ignited a new generation of militant activism against British colonialism in Ireland. Irish Republican prisoners hold POW status to this day.
Deaths may result from the Palestinian hunger strike. Yet, the struggles of Shalabi and Adnan have already aroused the attention of the world to Israeli human rights abuses. This struggle has the potential to end the practice of administrative detention in Israel and to win POW status for Palestinian political prisoners. Hunger strikers should not be thought of as victims but as revolutionaries fighting with the last weapon they have left-their own bodies.
This article first appeared on Liberation News, the Newspaper of the US based Party for Socialism and Liberation
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This post was written by William West