On the thirteenth day (11 October) of hunger strikes held by some 3,000 Palestinian political prisoners imprisoned behind Israeli bars, Israeli authorities have agreed to meet some demands for better treatment, an attempt at partial concession that, according to most spokespeople for Palestinian prisoners’ rights, does not go far enough.
On Sunday, Ma’an News Agency reported that the Israeli prison administration “has agreed to allow the transmission of satellite television, has allowed prisoners to go on family visits without handcuffs, has permitted visits between different sections of prisons to take place…[and has met] a demand by prisoners to be given whole chicken, instead of chopped chicken”. These minor allowances, however, fail to address central demands of the prisoners, chief among which is an end to solitary confinement. In fact, solitary confinement has thus far been used by the Israeli prison administration to punish prisoners who declare a hunger strike! To quote the words of Ma’an, these peripheral concessions by Israeli authorities fail to recognize that the hunger strike is ‘about isolation, not chicken’.
The initiative of the Palestinian political prisoners began on Sunday 25 September, when prisoners belonging to the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) issued a statement announcing their intention, beginning on the 27th, to reject all prison orders and to refuse to wear uniforms, stand up for daily counts,or accept food, in order to “declare to the steadfast, struggling brave masses of the Palestinian people and to all free people in the world…[that] we demand our rights and our dignity, as we struggle for the victory of our values and ideals.”
Their principal demand is to free Ahmad Sa’adat, a Palestinian national leader and the General Secretary of the PFLP, who has been imprisoned since March 2006 and, since winter 2009, has been held in solitary confinement following his call to resist the Israeli military attacks on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009 (Operation Cast Lead).The additional demands of the political prisoners include the right to family visits (which are frequently denied), the right to academic study (which is mostly denied), an end to the use of solitary confinement as punishment, an end to humiliation and harassment of visitors, an end to the abuse of prisoners while they are transferred from one prison to another, an end to the excessive use of fines as punishment and profiteering, an end to the shackling to and from meetings with lawyers and family members, an end to the denial of books and newspapers, an end to all forms of collective punishment such as night searches of cells and denial of basic health treatment, and more.
By 2 October,all political prisoners from PFLP were participating in the open-ended hunger strike on a full time basis. Currently, political prisoners from other Palestinian factions- Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad, and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP)- have joined the strike in a partial or complete manner in eight Israeli prisons, bringing the estimated total of participants to 3,000. This means that some 50% of all Palestinian political prisoners are participating in the hunger strike.
The strike inside the prisons has been met with an outpouring of support in Palestine and abroad. Within Palestine, solidarity tents have been pitched for over a week in the center of all main cities in the West Bank and Gaza, complementing demonstrations that have erupted over the last two weeks in Hebron, Nablus, Ramallah and other communities.
On the ninth day of the hunger strikes, volleys of tear gas and showers of rubber-coated steel bullets greeted Palestinian and international activists who were protesting and standing in solidarity with the prisoners outside of Ofer prison, near the Betunya checkpoint adjacent to Ramallah.
The over 200 protesters, many of whom were students at Birzeit University, marched and gathered in the early afternoon outside of Ofer Transmit Terminal, a temporary holding cell and transfer point for prisoners, before their voices were quickly silenced by the brute force of the Israeli army which, in response to isolated incidents of stone throwing, shot tear gas from behind the barred metal gates of the prison before charging the crowd. This marked the first confrontation between protesters and Israeli forces in the nine days since the hunger strikes began, a time in which protests have been frequent, but frequented only by Palestinians and Palestinian Authority policemen.
As the hunger strike grows, so is the international solidarity as groups as diverse as the Irish Republican Socialist Committee, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and others have publicly announced their support. The latter insisted in a public statement that “we stand with these political prisoners and prisoners of conscience all around the world who are imprisoned unjustly, and unjustly treated”, while the former echoed this rallying cry of solidarity- “Our strength is your strength as you commence your hunger strike, and your victory will also be our victory.”
The Israeli government has been quick to punish prisoners in an attempt to deter them from striking. In addition to heightened intensity of everyday oppression and mistreatment, prisoners have been denied access to lawyers and have been warned that for every day of their hunger strike, they will be denied family visits for 1 month. In addition, over 40 prisoners have been placed in solitary confinement, or have been abruptly and abusively transferred to other prisons, for participating in the strike.
One woman at the protest outside of Ofer prison, where 9 prisoners have so far been placed in solitary confinement and robbed of all their personal belongings, revealed in an interview that she is the mother of a prisoner who is participating in the hunger strike, and who has now been in solitary confinement for 9 days. Her son was a student at Birzeit University when he was arrested for becoming politically active at the university. Asked if she was scared for her son, she replied, “how can I be scared? I’ve lived like this for more than 40 years. Maybe they will eventually kill my son, they may eventually kill me. We’re all gonna die someday, so why should I be scared?”
At a sit-in in Ramallah on Tuesday, Nariman Al Tamimi, a former political prisoner from the village of Nabi Saleh whose husband, Bassem Al Tamimi, is a current political prisoner, related that “all we want is to be able to see our sons, daughters, husbands, fathers and mothers. We want them to be treated according to international law. We want to have our rights like anyone else around the world. I am sure that most of you heard about the Israeli captured militant Gilad Shalit, but I wonder if you heard about the [thousands of] Gilad Shalits in Israeli jails? Most of them are civilians, including women and children. I call all human rights organizations and activists to take the side of justice and save our prisoners.”