The Unfortunate Truth Surrounding the Palestinian Hunger Strikes

In May, 2000 plus Palestinian prisoners ended possibly the largest hunger strike in history. It was a strike with dual purpose: raising awareness and halting the practice of administrative detention — the jailing of Palestinians with no trial and for no given reason — as well as obtaining basic human rights for detained prisoners. Just last week, Palestinian footballer Mahmoud Sarsak, who spent 3 months on hunger strike, ended his hunger strike and was released from prison.

Both strikes and others between have ended through deals which have resulted in some awareness of administrative detention, but no halt to it, and some, though limited concessions in regards to prisoner rights. There have been calls by some prisoners to begin a mass strike again.

Through the strike last month the hunger striker aimed to reclaim lost dignity and his own fate. For an individual who has been refused rights, refused independence and refused the chance to live their own life, there still remains one option: the control of one’s own death. This in itself should not be viewed morbidly but rather as a reclaiming of dignity, a renewal of control that has previously been taken away.

Where outside forces may certainly control a person’s life and surrounding elements, a decision on death can be a personal one. This may not seem straightforward. We do not choose death, it comes to us all; for the vast majority after a lengthy life, for others, life is sadly and suddenly cut short. However for an individual who has lived under occupation, has suffered at the hands of administrative detention, and has the most banal aspects of their daily life controlled; a decision on death can be a decision on life.

For the Palestinian prisoner on hunger strike this act was not just about prisoner rights, it was a rejection of a system of control; not just in the physical terms of occupation of land, but mentally regarding the occupation of the mind. In regards to the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, this is the constant reminder that the occupied territories is in a condition of ‘exception’, an area where death and destruction is allowed, where life can be controlled down to the tiniest of details.

Having worked and researched in the West Bank these reminders were even obvious to myself as a non-Palestinian; from the ‘hebrewisation’ of Palestinian villages lost in Israel’s 1948 war of Independence, to the Israeli flags waving triumphantly from the illegal Israeli settlements situated throughout the West Bank. It is the osmosis of occupation, as the physical of the occupation permeates the mind. For the Palestinian prisoners who were on hunger strike the refusal of food was an act of dignity, of great mental courage, and a reclaiming of life. It was a choice that only they could control, a decision that was their own.

I battled with the decision about writing on this subject, because those hunger strikers are to me, the epitome of human spirit. And yet, it has become apparent that the physical and mental Israeli occupation continued as the hunger strike progressed.

A deal between Israel and the hunger strikers was possible from Day One; however in the case of Khader Adnan, Hana Shalabi, Bilal Diab, Tha’ir Halahlah and Mahmoud Sarsak deals were only reached as those individuals neared death.

This list of individuals above is especially important considering one would assume that after Israel has negotiated with one hunger striker, the state would be more adept at negotiating with any following hunger strikers and as such it could be expected that deals would be made a lot quicker with each strike, rather than being delayed until many weeks have passed. This did not happen. It must also be noted that negotiation can always be initiated from Day One; however each side will often try and strengthen their position at the negotiation table. In this case, Israel, in an already formidably strong position, further strengthened this by putting the lives of Palestinians at dire risk by delaying talks for long periods of time, allowing individuals to starve to near death, before putting rather paltry deals on the table – which never questioned the continued use of administrative detention.

Therefore when a deal is available from the outset, why wait until the individual on hunger strike has gone through the pain and suffering of starvation? The answer stems back to control, the control of negotiations, of the individual and essentially another subset of the occupation.

The act of hunger striking was turned into a form of torture, through the continuation of control; the control of the Palestinian hunger striker and their act.

This is where the internal battle on writing about the subject is so hard. I want to celebrate a victory, if only a small one, for the rights of the Palestinian people though the concessions made in the deal; but I cannot, as the only real victor is the State of Israel. The practice of administrative detention continues, and while a Palestinian may be released after hunger striking, this is only after that individual has gone through the process of starvation and near death. Israel has discovered a tactic that appears reasonable while avoiding the bad publicity that a hunger striker’s death may bring, while actually continuing the status quo of occupation and control. Of course the fact that deaths were avoided is important, but the manner in which this was done is inhumane and immoral. I would applaud it for the ingenuity of it, if it was not so sad to witness. The one positive is that if more prisoners go on hunger strike as has been discussed, more concessions will have to be made, even if the same tactic is used.

However a form of resistance that has been used throughout the world by those who have little has been tamed, and that is the unfortunate truth of the Palestinian hunger strikes.

Matthew Vickery is a freelance writer who has also worked previously for the Palestine News Network in the West Bank. He is currently studying an MRes Middle East Studies at Exeter University and is a commissioning editor for e-International Relations and media liaison for RSG. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Matthew.