How hunger strikers "tied the hands of the occupation": a view from Israeli prison
9 June 2012
Palestinians have achieved three consecutive victories in the last few months. In October 2011, there was the release of prisoners (the exchange deal involving the kidnapped Israeli soldier).
Then there was a series of individual hunger strikes, which lasted for unparalleled periods of time. These began with Khader Adnan, who went on hunger strike to protest against the Israeli policy of administrative detention.
Adnan’s action spurred an open-ended hunger strike by prisoners, started by more than a thousand prisoners on 17 April. It ended on 14 May, with more than 2,000 prisoners taking part. The strike began a new page in the history of the Palestinian struggle for liberation, written by the prisoners along with their Arab and international supporters.
The agreement signed on 14 May 2012 between the authorities in charge of the strike and Israel — with Egyptian and international mediation and guarantees — confirmed that the prisoner movement not only scored a major achievement, but realized a clear victory. We can now speak of two periods, the before and after, with the watershed moment being the hunger strike of 2012.
Clear aims, coordination and preparationFrom the beginning, the strike had several strong points. The most important of these was the clarity of its aims — key goals achievable through struggle and determination. These goals fused with the significant and highly conscious coordination between the prisoners on strike and those leading it inside the prisons, and between the latter and the wider political authorities outside.
Strong points became clear. There was no detailed involvement with everyday demands and issues. Thereby, a situation was avoided where larger aims would become entangled with specific demands. This tied the hands of the occupation, which could not manipulate these aims.
A huge role was also played by the strong, clear approach to the media taken by the leadership of the strike, while Israel failed in its attempts to broadcast a contrary view. There was also an accurate reading of Palestinian, Arab and international realities. A central goal was determined through prior planning — the possibility of reviving the Palestinian popular movement and making the most of the significant Egyptian role as a principal party to support the strike and guarantee the achievement of its goals. This risk proved worthwhile as was evident in the Egyptian sponsorship of the agreement to end the strike.
Another significant achievement was the clear preparation and the impressive readiness of the international solidarity movements to launch their campaigns all over the world, particularly in Europe and America, to support the prisoners in their fight for freedom. They declared 17 April as Palestinian Prisoners’ Day.
This resulted in international public pressure in favor of the Palestinians’ right to confront the collusion of their government with the Israeli occupiers. These movements adopted a clear discourse on the humanitarian and political rights demanded by the prisoners. They also proved the importance of cumulative efforts to internationalize the cause of the prisoners and the cause of Palestine.
The strike adopted an approach which has blown the policy of “postponement” — imposed by Israel with official American and European support — out of the water. This is what happened in Oslo, where crucial components of the Palestinian issue were postponed to fit the policy of dictation and domination over the Palestinian leadership.
One of the issues postponed under that formula was the release of prisoners, but this too was brought back to the top of the official Palestinian agenda by the strike. The strikers refused to accept that the prisoners were pawns under the mercy of the occupation.
The strike also succeeded in neutralizing the negative effect of Israeli public opinion by not addressing it at all. This is because if it had moved, it would have gone against the just demands of the prisoners. It is a colonialist public opinion, extremely hostile to Palestinian rights, and therefore cannot support its own victims.
Only one victorious sideThere is a difference between achieving specific matters within a wider set of demands and achieving all the goals of a decisive act of struggle. There is also a difference between a clear victory and a case in which each side thinks they’ve won. The outcome of the strike, as expressed in the agreement, is clear — there is only one victorious side, the prisoners.
This was the first time that negotiations were carried out directly with those involved in the case. It is also the first time a decision has been made by the occupier — the General Security Service (Shabak or Shin Bet) — not the Israeli Prison Service, which in the scale of Israeli oppression is just a subcontractor of the Shabak and the security services.
The strike neutralized the Israeli Prison Service and the longer it went on the more direct the dealings with the principal player, the Shabak, became. This is because of the strength of the strike and its solid basis. It forced the Israeli apparatus to reveal itself, because it limited its ability to manipulate and maneuver.
But the most important issue here is the success of the strike in removing the strategic oppression tools the Shabak has used for decades, particularly the laws of administrative detention and solitary confinement in prisons. In this way, the rules of a deeply rooted, coercive game were broken.
As a result of its strength, the strike also revealed the hostility and criminality of the Israeli judicial system, which since its conception has been an instrument to whitewash the racist colonialist project, the Israeli state’s crimes. It gave them legitimacy, justifying administrative procedures, the British mandate’s emergency laws, and continuous solitary confinement, all under the guise of security. And here we saw the Shabak forced to back down over some of them, confirming that the Israeli judicial system played and still plays the role of “palace guards” for the ruling security apparatus.
As for the popular international movement, which turned into official efforts, the Arab role, particularly the Egyptian, and the carrying out of multi-sided negotiations (the prisoners, Israel, Egypt and international pressure) — all these created a new atmosphere, an equation more akin to real negotiations than simply an occupying country dealing with its victims. The strike also confirmed that Israel’s power is not absolute, that its strength and sway can crumble in the face of targeted Palestinian efforts.
Dissolving divisions and boundariesIt is true that the strike was not comprehensive. It was Hamas who took the decision to launch it, along with Islamic Jihad, and with the support of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Members of the Palestine Liberation Organization/Fatah took part in it. Those who initiated the strike kept their word when they guaranteed that all factions were represented in the authoritative body and leadership of the strike, each according to their role and numbers.
Although the strike included no more than a third of the prisoners, with Hamas being the most heavily represented, this in no way weakens its legitimacy. There might have been an argument prior to the strike about declaring it officially, but the moment it began, it became the prisoners’ strike. It became the responsibility of those prisoners taking part in it, and even those who were not, to make it succeed, support it, and share responsibility for it.
The strike proved that when our people or the prisoners’ movement engage in large-scale battles with the occupying oppressive state, the whole nation gets involved.
It is worth confirming that support for the Palestinian cause and Palestinian rights in their entirety is above political factions, rendering such divisions marginal and the people united. When the struggle of our people in Galilee, the Triangle, the Naqab desert and the coast meets with that in Jerusalem, Gaza, the West Bank and those in exile, all boundaries between our people dissolve.
Mobilizing every corner of the homelandReconciliation is not the goal of the Palestinian people, it is the responsibility of the political factions involved. The goals of the Palestinian people are return, freedom, liberating the homeland and the people, and self-determination. What is more important than reconciliation is the unity of the struggle and its integration on the basis of the fundamentals of Palestinian rights, not on curtailing them.
This is where the strike succeeded in mobilizing an unprecedented Palestinian movement in every corner of the homeland. With the support of the international movement, this turned the equation on its head in the last stages of the strike, when the prisoners became the ones holding the occupiers and the prisons under siege.
The Palestinian popular movement was followed by an important and effective movement. The initiative launched by the prisoners’ affairs ministry, the freed prisoners, the leadership of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization is a promising model for overcoming factional divisions.
It is now clear that coordination is possible, roles can be complementary, even if the divisions continue. It is clear that the unity of the goal and the people over the prisoners’ struggle is the basis. This is an integrated working model which is capable of achieving victories.
In his last speech in February 1965, Malcolm X said: “The only thing power respects is power.” This is one of the most important lessons of the strike. How do we create this power through determination and justice, and how do we use it well as prisoners and as a people? We must not forget that the most important goal of the prisoners, and the people, is freedom, and that requires more power. The hunger strike in 2012 is a victory on the road to freedom.
Ameer Makhoul is a Palestinian civil society leader and political prisoner at Gilboa Prison.
This article is co-published by Al Akhbar English and translated from Arabic.