Hunger strikes like the one that ended Monday have long been the only way for Palestinians held captive by Israel to secure improvements to harsh prison conditions.
More than 15 major indefinite hunger strikes have been organized by the Palestinian captive movement in Israeli jails in the 45 years since the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip began.
Decisions to stage “strategic” hunger strikes – as the prisoners refer to them, to distinguish them from the smaller-scale strikes they hold regularly - are taken in full knowledge of the suffering and danger they entail for the participants. But they have proven to be the prisoners’ sole means of partially alleviating the suffering of a different order which is inflicted on them on a daily and growing basis.
Conditions for Palestinians in the jails of “the only democracy in the Middle East” have never been determined by considerations of human rights. They have largely been the outcome of a constant struggle pitting the defenseless inmates, determined to continue their struggle for freedom and dignity behind bars, against an occupation authority for which brutal incarceration is an integral part of the broader system of repression.
In a world which tacitly colludes with the occupation by disregarding its crimes, it is unsurprising that this struggle goes largely unreported by the media. It only makes the news at major junctures, when the prisoners force themselves on the domestic and regional agenda by declaring a war of wills, with only their empty stomachs as weapons.
This weapon was first employed effectively in 1969, in a hunger strike in Ramleh prison which lasted 11 days and set a precedent. Large-scale hunger strikes have been held around once every three years since. They have invariably focused on variants of the same demand: the improvement of worsening prison conditions to a level consistent with the prisoners’ human dignity.
Veteran former inmates recall how prisoners in the 1970s were subject to forced labor – at times being made to do work for the Israeli military such as sewing tarpaulins – forbidden from speaking to each other in prison yards, and routinely meted out brutal and humiliating treatment from guards. They are acutely conscious that it was only the hunger and pain they suffered in successive strikes which brought about incremental gains – from the right to have spoons to eat their meals with, to the demands raised by the prisoners in their latest hunger strike.
At times they have paid with their lives, as in the 32-day hunger strike at Nafha prison in 1980. Three inmates – Rasem Halaweh, Ali al-Jaafari, and Ishaq Maragheh – died during attempts by prison administration to force-feed them with fluid injected through tubes inserted into their nostrils.
Veterans consider this to have been one of the hardest-fought and toughest of all Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strikes because of the draconian measures the Israeli prison service took in an attempt to break it, apparently fearing the precedent it would set if it succeeded. But the prisoners’ determination proved stronger, and a number of gains were achieved. These included improved conditions such as being provided with beds to sleep on (they had previously had to sleep on cell floors), and also recognition of the prisoners’ organizational structures, and by extension their right to deal with the prison authorities via representatives of their own choosing.
The most high-profile hunger strike after Nafha was at Juneid prison in 1987, which also extended to other detention centers. It resulted in prisoners establishing their right to longer outdoors-time and access to radio and television.
The “mother of battles” waged by Palestinian prisoners was the rolling hunger strike they launched in September 1992. It took months to plan and coordinate, and was taken up in succession by captives in all the main prisons, numbering around 7,000 in total. Street protests in support of the prisoners rapidly gained momentum, sparking what the media dubbed at the time as the “prisoners’ intifada.” During the 17 days of the hunger strike, Israeli occupation forces killed 17 Palestinian protesters in clashes in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. One of the striking prisoners, Hussein Obeidat, also lost his life due to health complications.
Among the notable gains achieved was the right for prisoners to embrace their young children for five minutes during family visits, and also to continue their academic studies by correspondence, and to use fans to alleviate the summer heat in their cells.
It was clear to the captive movement at the time that it would be a struggle to hold on to these important gains. Having been forced to yield in the face of the prisoners’ resolve, the Israeli prison service proceeded to gradually but systematically renege on its undertakings. It withdrew, or effectively cancelled, many of the entitlements prisoners had achieved, taking advantage of the conducive political climate and conditions over the years that followed.
Thus, by the time of the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, prison conditions had worsened steadily, and they have continued to deteriorate. The Israeli government itself ordered harsh measures against prisoners as a means of applying pressure and extortion during the course of the protracted prisoner exchange negotiations conducted after the Palestinian resistance captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Whenever a decision is taken to go on hunger strike, the leaders of the various political groups to which the inmates belong appoint a special committee to prepare for and organize the protest, and define and prioritize demands and tactics. Known as the “struggle committee,” it determines the parameters of the protest and the minimum terms for ending it. Once the strike is announced, the committee takes charge of leading it and negotiating with the prison authorities on behalf of the prisoners, and it alone can call an end to the strike.
Former prisoners who have been on open hunger strike say they always knew their lives were on the line, despite the measures they learnt to take to maintain their health for as long as possible. Captives who join hunger strikes are, for example, told to take regular doses of salt to keep up their blood pressure and drink plenty of water to maintain body fluid levels. It is also important to keep movement minimal to preserve calories and avoid sudden exertions which could cause vertigo.
Yet these measures do not spare hunger strikers from intense suffering. This is compounded by the foul smell which begins to be emitted from the gut around the fifth day, accompanied by severe pains in the joints and a growing sense of weakness. The feeling of actual hunger diminishes as the stomach atrophies. With time, other symptoms start to appear, with severe weight loss setting in after the first week. After the second week the body starts tapping energy from the liver and muscles.
According to medical observations, hunger strikers enter a critical phase in their fifth week, as muscle paralysis sets in, also affecting the eyesight, and it becomes difficult even to swallow water. Subsequently, the senses dull and weaken before being almost completely lost. Then, internal bleeding begins, along with the struggle against death.
There is no precise medical prognosis for how long someone can survive without food. But observations of hunger strikers suggest that a young, healthy adult of medium weight would expect to start losing consciousness on day 55 of a hunger strike, and be in a critically life-threatening condition from day 60. Statistics suggest it would be highly unlikely for a hunger striker to survive 75 days.
Prior to the latest Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike, one of the longest in modern times was the 1981 protest by Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners jailed by Britain, led by the militant and poet Bobby Sands. They began a rolling hunger strike in March that year to demand recognition as political prisoners rather than common criminals. Sands died after 66 days, and his comrades continued the protest. Nine of them lost their lives before the hunger strike was called off in October after the British government acceded to the prisoners’ demands. Sands became an icon of the Irish republican movement, his funeral attended by more than 100,000 people. Palestinian detainees Thaer Halahleh and Bilal Thiab were on the 77th day of their hunger strike when Monday’s deal was announced.