Archive | May, 2012

What Can Be Done About Syria? Tragedy and Impotence

31 May

 


            The Houla Massacre of a week ago in several small Muslim villages near the Syrian city of Homs underscores the tragic circumstances of civilian vulnerability to the brutal violence of a criminal government. Reliable reports confirm that most of the 108 civilians who died in Houla were executed at close range in cold blood, over 50 of whom were children under the age of 10. It is no wonder that the Houla Massacre is being called ‘a tipping point’ in the global response to this latest horrifying outbreak of Syrian violence, a process that started over 15 months ago. The chilling nature of this vicious attack that refused to spare the most innocent among us, young children, does seem like a point of no return. What happened in Houla, although still contested as to details, seems established as mainly the work of the Shabiha, the notorious militia of thugs employed by Damascus to deal cruelly with opposition forces and their supposed supporters among the Syrian people. This massacre also represents a crude repudiation of UN diplomacy, especially the ceasefire 280 unarmed UN observers have been monitoring since it was put into effect on April 12th.  In this regard the events in Houla reinforced the impression that the Assad regime was increasingly relying on tactics of depraved criminality and state terror to destroy the movement that has been mounted against it. Such defiance also created new pressure on the UN and the international community to do something more interventionary than bemoaning and censuring when confronted by such evil, or face being further discredited as inept and even irrelevant.

 

            But is not the Syrian situation better treated as a ‘tragic predicament’ of contemporary world order rather than presented as a tipping point that might justify military intervention? The language of tipping point raises misleading hard power expectations that external coercive initiatives can redeem the situation? What kind of hitherto unimaginable action plan undertaken by the UN or NATO could hope to stop the violence at acceptable costs and thereby change the governing structure of Syria for the better? There has long existed an international consensus that the Syrian response to a popular uprising that started nonviolently more than a year ago should be vigorously opposed, but this awareness was coupled with a growing realization that there were no good options in the event, as has proved to be the case, that the Assad regime defies international censure and media exposure. Even those who supported the 6-Point Annan Plan in the UN acknowledged from its inception that it represented a desperate effort, which had almost no prospect of succeeding. Critics claimed that the Annan Plan was ‘accepted’ in bad faith by Assad to give Damascus breathing space while it went forward with its own plans to crush the opposition by all means at its disposal, and had no intention of reaching a political solution of the conflict. In truth, the opposition may also have been unwilling to live within the limits of the Annan approach as it meant giving up its primary goal of establishing a new governance structure for Syria.

 

            There was a widely shared sentiment at the UN and in the world media that it was unacceptable to stand back and watch further crimes against humanity take place, inducing a mood that ‘something more must be done,’ but what? Remembering the awful failure of the world to look away while the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 or to remain passive in responding to the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, there existed the feeling that the developments in Syria were heading toward a comparably unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe, already more than 10, 000 Syrians had died, and it seems likely that worse may still occur if the Assad leadership is not removed.

 

            Diplomacy had been arduously pursued since the outset of the turmoil in Syria:  originally by Turkey, then the Arab League, and finally by Kofi Annan, the Joint Envoy of the UN Secretary General and the Arab League, each phase greeted by deceptive welcoming gestures in Damascus but clearly without any intention to abandon or even mitigate reliance on indiscriminate violence directed at the civilian population. The parties all along, including Bashar al-Assad sweet talked international emissaries, announced their willingness to stop the killing and other abuses, and even accepted monitoring arrangements. On occasion after occasion before negotiators had even left this tormented country the two sides resumed their fierce combat as if nothing had happened to alter their behavior, and for this, the opposition led by the Syrian Free Army deserves a share of the blame. In effect, diplomacy has been given multiple chances, and continues to be put forward as the only way to make a difference in the conflict, and yet it clearly lacks the authority and capabilities to stop the bloodshed and suspend the political struggle for control of the Syrian state.

 

            This frustration of diplomacy over many months naturally turns our attention to more coercive options. Russia has been blamed for preventing stronger action being endorsed by the UN Security Council, and is even being charged by the American Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, with pushing Syria into a prolonged civil war due its unwillingness to back stronger collective measures in the Security Counil.  Whether Russia will alter its stance in response to these latest developments remains uncertain, but there is a definite call for new initiatives within and outside the UN. There are intimations of the formation of a new ‘coalition of the willing’ prepared to engage in military intervention, and even NGOs are demanding a stronger stand. For instance, Amnesty International, for instance, has issued an appeal to the Security Council to call upon the International Criminal Court to issue indictments against the Syrian leadership for their role in the commission of severe crimes against humanity, culminating in the Houla Massacre.

 

            Military intervention has been strongly advocated for several months by some irresponsibly belligerent political figures in the United States, most notably by John McCain, the Republican Senator who lost the presidential election to Barack Obama back in 2008.  So far there seems little appetite for such a major new military undertaking even at the Pentagon, and certainly not among the American public. Also Syria has no substantial coveted oil reserves that might have swung the balance of governmental opinion toward intervention during the debate on what to do about Qaddafi’s Libya.

 

            The logistics and politics surrounding any proposed military intervention in Syria make it an unrealistic option. There is not the political will to mount the kind of major military operation on the ground that would have reasonable hopes of combining regime change with an enforced stability until normalcy could be established by a new national leadership. Unlike Libya where NATO’s reliance on air power without ground troops was able to turn the tide decisively, if destructively, in favor of rebel forces, such a scenario is viewed as inapplicable to Syria where there continues to exist more public support for the regime and more substantial military and paramilitary resources at its disposal, especially if it continue to receive military assistance from Iran. All in all, the military option would likely make matters worse for the Syrian people, increasing the magnitude of internal violence without having the effect of bringing the conflict to an end, or producing better hopes for the future in a society as conflict and divided by enmities, bad memories, and fears as is the case of Syria.

 

            A major reason why it is suspicious to be too interventionary, or for that matter dogmatically aloof, is the radical uncertainty surrounding the nature of the anti-Assad coalition of forces within Syria, and the motivations of their external backers. Such uncertainty is particularly prevalent among Syrian minorities that seem to fear the collapse of the present regime in Damascus more than these dislike some of its oppressive behavior. How to act in such circumstances of uncertainty should counsel humility, but rarely does as this sort of acknowledgement hampers the kind of mobilization of support needed for bold action. What is certain is the bloody nature of the conflict, the indiscriminate tactics relied upon, and the efforts to terrorize the civilian population. While it is correct at this point to hold the government in power responsible and accountable, both sides have acted ruthlessly and in a manner

that casts a dark cloud over Syria’s future.

 

            The dilemma exposes the weakness of empathetic geopolitics in a world that continues to be dominated by territorially supreme sovereign states with insecure and antagonistic minorities. In the Syrian situation this tragic reality is revealed in all its horror, complexity, and contradictions. It is unacceptable to remain a passive spectator in a media wired world where events are reported visually almost as they are occurring, or immediately thereafter, and there is no way to avert the gaze of the outside world that is both compassionate and untrustworthy. It is morally unacceptable to stand by, watch, and do nothing. But the UN lacks the authority, capability, and legitimacy to impose the collective will of international society except in those rare instances when it is able to mobilize an effective geopolitical consensus as it did in Libya (but only by deceiving Russia and China as to the scope of the response contemplated by the authorization of force in March of 2011), but the outcome still being shrouded in uncertainty and controversy. For reasons explained above, plus the lingering resentment due to the Libyan deception on the part of Russia and China, there has not yet emerged a similar geopolitical consensus favoring military intervention in Syria, and none seems likely. Just as doing nothing is unacceptable, mounting a military intervention is unrealistic, and perhaps undesirable, and for now politically impossible.

 

            What is left to fill the gap between the unacceptable and the unrealistic is diplomacy, which has proved to be futile up to this point, but hanging on to the slim possibility that it might yet somehow produce positive results, is the only conceivable way forward with respect to the Syrian situation. It is easy to deride Kofi Annan and the frustrations arising from the repeated failures of Damascus to comply with the agreed framework, but it remains impossible to  find preferable alternatives. If diplomacy is finally admitted to be a deadend  as seems almost certain it raises serious questions as to whether in a globalizing world the absence of stronger global institutions of a democratic character is not a fatal flaw in the 21st century structure of world order. Moral awareness without the political capacity to act responsively points up a desperate need for global reform, but the grossly unequal distributions of power and wealth in the world make unfeasible such adjustments for the foreseeable future. And so the peoples of the world seem destined to go on living in this tragic space between the unacceptable and the impossible. It will take a true miracle to overcome this gap for the benefit of the Syrian people, and others.

Beyond the Politics of Invisibility: Remembering Not to Forget Palestinian Hunger Strikers

28 May

 

            With a certain amount of fanfare in Israel and Palestine, although still severely underreported by the world media and relatively ignored by the leading watchdog human rights NGOs, it was observed with contradictory spins that the Palestinian hunger strikes had been brought to an end by agreement between the strikers and Israel. At least, that is what most of us believed who were following this narrative from outside the region, but like so much else in the region our understanding was a half-truth, if that. Whether Israel abides by its assurances remains to be seen, and although these strikes were courageous acts of nonviolent resistance it is not clear at this point whether they will have any longer term effects on the Israel’s occupation, arrest, and prison policy, or on the wider Palestinian struggle.

 

            Two things are certain, however. First, a much wider awareness that Israel’s reliance on administrative detention, its abusive arrest procedures, and its prison system deserves wider scrutiny than in the past, and that this dimension of the prolonged occupation of Palestine has been responsible for inflicting great suffering on many Palestinians and their families ever since 1967. Whether such a structure of imprisonment of an occupied people should be viewed as a hitherto neglected dimension of state terrorism is an open question that should be further investigated. Secondly, that the hunger strike as a mode of resistance is now part of the Palestinian culture of resistance, and an option that engages Palestinian political consciousness in manner that did not exist prior to Khader Adnan’s 66 day hunger strike initiated on December 17, 2011.

 

            There were parallel and overlapping strikes: A sequence of long-term strikes, first, Adnan, followed by Hana Shalabi, then Thaer Halahleh and Bilal Diab, and maybe others, focusing on humiliating and abusive arrest procedures, as well as administration detention as a practice; and then a second wave of strikes, commencing on April 17, 2012, Palestine Prisoners Day and ending 30 days later on the eve of the 2012 Nakba observance. This latter protest involved more than 1600 Palestinian prisoners, who were initially inspired by the Adnan and Shalabi strikes, and focused their challenge on deplorable prison conditions.  

 

            Supposedly Israeli prison authorities agreed under the pressure of these latter strikes to reduce reliance on solitary confinement in its prisons and to allow more family visits, especially from Gaza. Gaza prisoners had been denied such visits for years as an unlawful reprisal mandated by the Knesset in angry reaction to the capture of the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. What was this pressure? It was not moral suasion. It seemed to be a calculated decision by Israeli prison authorities that it would be better to make small concessions than risk angry reactions to the death of any hunger strikers. The debate in the Israeli press was entirely pragmatic: whether it was worse to have bad publicity or to show weakness by giving in. Israel only seemed to give in. It needs to be understood that Israel retains all the prerogatives to rely on administrative detention in the future and continuing to have unmonitored exclusive control over prison life.

 

            In the background it should be appreciated that the whole structure of this Israeli prison system violates the Fourth Geneva Convention that explicitly forbids the transfer of prisoners from an occupied territory to the territory of the occupier.

 

            These uncertainties about the results of these past strikes should certainly be kept in mind. What is presently of more urgent concern is the failure even to realize that long-term hunger strikes were never ended by at least two prisoners, Mahmoud Sarsak, without food for 70 days, and Akram Rikhawi on strike for 40 days. Both are, as could hardly be otherwise, are currently in danger of dying, and yet hardly anybody seems to know. Sarsak who is 25 years of age and a resident of the Rafah Refugee Camp in Gaza is hardly a nobody. When arrested in July 2009 he was a member of the Palestine National Football Team on his way to a match in the West Bank. He was arrested under the ‘Unlawful Combatants Law,’ which offers a person detained even less protection than is provided by ‘administrative detention.’ It is aimed at Palestinians living in Gaza, a part of Palestine that is treated by Israel (but not the international community) as no longer occupied since Sharon’s ‘disengagement plan’ was implemented in 2005. Iman Sarsak has bemoaned his brother’s fate, “My family never would have imagined that Mahmoud would have been imprisoned by Israel. Why, really why?”

 

            There is reason to believe that rather than some conjured up security concern, Sarsak was arrested as part of a broader effort to demoralize the Palestinians, especially those long entrapped in Gaza. During the savage attacks on Gaza at the end of 2008 (‘Operation Cast Lead’) the national stadium used for football and the offices of the Palestine Football Association were targeted and destroyed, and three members of the Palestine team killed. All along, the team has been handicapped by curfews, checkpoints, and harassments, as well as the blockade of Gaza, that has forced the team to forfeit many games. The goalkeeper, Omar Abu Rwayyes has said, “if you degrade the national team you degrade the idea that there could ever be a nation.” Football, what we Americans call soccer, plays a vital symbolic role in the self-esteem and national consciousness of peoples throughout the Arab world, and elsewhere in the South, to a degree unimaginable for even a sports crazy country like the United States.

 

            There has been some slight notice taken of the plight of the Palestinian team in the football world. A few years ago Michel Piatini, President of FIFA, warned Israel that it was risking its own membership in the world association if it continued to interfere with the Palestinian efforts to field the best possible team for international competition. But as with many international gestures of protest against Israel, there was no follow through, nullifying the original impulse. In fact, a disturbing reversal of approach took place. Not long afterwards, Piatini actually presided over a process that awarded Israel the honor of hosting the 2013 Under-21 European Championships. A British NGO, ‘Soccer Without Borders’ was not so easily seduced, issuing a declaration urging a boycott of the event in Israel, declaring that its organization “stands in solidarity with Mahmoud Sarsak and all Palestinian political prisoners.”

 

            As is usually the case, the Israeli response in self-justifying and cynical. A shin bet official insisted that Israel “can’t play by the rules of bridge if everyone else is playing rugby.” This kind of assertion papers over the degree to which Israeli society in recent years has enjoyed peace, prosperity, and security while Palestinians have been enduring the rigors of a cruel occupation and the severe vulnerabilities of a rightless existence. Palestinians have also been experiencing the split reality of observing a set of protective laws applied Israeli settlers (all of whom are part of an unlawful enterprise) and an unregulated military structure applied arbitrarily to the indigenous residents of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.

 

            With national athletes being such objects of interest it shows how effective is this ‘politics of invisibility’ that keeps the world from knowing the harm being done to the Palestinian people and how they are resisting, often at great risk and self-sacrifice, as epitomized by these long hunger strikes. One can be certain that if such repressive measures were taken by China or Myanmar there would be a mighty cascade of interest, coupled with high minded denunciations from the global bully pulpits of political leaders and an array of moral authority figures. But when the Palestinians experience abuse or resist by reliance on brave forms of nonviolence there is a posture of almost total disregard, and if a few voices are raised, such as that of Archbishop Tutu it is either ignored because his witness is treated as partisan or according to Israel’s more zealous defenders, he is discredited by being alleged to be ‘anti-semite,’ a denunciation whose meaning has been conflated so as to apply to any critic of Israel. Even such a globally respected figure as Jimmy Carter could not escape the wrath of Israeli loyalists merely because the word ‘apartheid’ in the title of a book urging a just peace between the two peoples.

 

            The politics of invisibility is cruel and harmful. It is cruel because it does not acknowledge a pattern of injustice because the victims have been effectively stigmatized. It is harmful because it sends a strong signal that victimization will only be given some sort of visibility if it shocks the conscience by its violence against those who seem innocent. Such visibility has a largely negative and stereotyping impact, allowing the oppressor to escalate state violence without risking any kind of backlash or even notice, and validating the perception of the victim population as undeserving, and even as evil endorsers of an ethos of terrorism. Israeli hasbara has worked hard over many years to stereotype the Palestinians as ‘terrorists,’ and by doing so to withdraw any sympathy from their victimization, which is portrayed as somehow deserved. These hunger strikers, despite all indications to the contrary, are so described, attributing their supposed association with Islamic Jihad as synonymous with an embrace of terrorism.  A more objective look at the evidence suggests that Islamic Jihad has itself for several years abandoned tactics of violence against civilian targets, and is part of a broader shift in Palestinian tactics of resistance in the direction of nonviolence. Such shifts are either totally ignored by the politics of invisibility or there is a refusal to acknowledge the shift so as to keep the negative stereotype before the public. 

 

            It is one more challenge to global civil society to do what international law is currently incapable of doing: treat equals equally. If the world media renders visible the plight of Chinese human rights activists who are abused by the state, might not at least human rights NGOs note this emergency plight of Palestinian hunger strikers on the edge of death?  And if these NGOs are afraid to do so, should not those with eyes able to see such torment, start screaming at the top of our lungs?

What is New in the Israel/Palestine Conflict

25 May


 


           Undoubtedly transfixed by the extraordinary developments throughout the Arab world since Mohamed Boazizi’s self-immolation on December 17, 2010: from Tahrir Square to the NATO intervention in Libya to bloody confrontations in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain to the eerie quiet in Algeria to the relative and temporary calm in Morocco, there has been a widespread few have noticed that the Israeli/Palestine conflict has changed its character in fundamental respects during the last couple of years.

           

            For some the first of these transformative developments may have been realized for somewhat longer, but now almost everybody knows, except for those in high places, especially in Washington and Tel Aviv who seem to have a political need not to know. The stark fact is that both Israel and Palestine have no hope that international negotiations between governmental representatives of the two sides has any chance of reaching an agreement that will end the conflict. Israelis, especially those backing the Netanyahu government never desired or believed in the possibility of a diplomatic solution. The ‘peace process’ that started in Oslo back in 1993 has steadily deteriorated the Palestinian prospects while enhancing those of Israel; it has been worse than gridlock for the Palestinians and a smokescreen for Israelis to carry out their expansionist plans while pretending to be pursuing a political compromise based on withdrawing from land occupied in 1967. The sequel to Oslo has been a pathetic enterprise, taking the form of ‘the quartet’ (U.S., European Union, Russia, and the UN) setting forth a roadmap that was supposed to lead the Palestinians to a state of their own drawn along the borders of the green line, but in practice has been a charade that Israel has scoffed at while representatives of the Palestinian Authority seemed to believe that it was worth playing along, although working within the confines of the occupation to establish governmental institutions that could claim statehood by unilateral self-assertion. The PA did seize this option last September when President Mahmoud Abbas made his historic plea to the UN General Assembly, but was stymied by exertion of U.S. geopolitical muscle

 on Israel’s behalf. At this point even the PA seems to have abandoned its effort to challenge a supposed status quo that is more realistically comprehended as a toxic mixture of annexation and apartheid should no longer be called ‘occupation.’

 

            Apparently to please Washington, and to a lesser extent the EU, neither Tel Aviv nor the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah have openly repudiated diplomacy, and continue to give lip service to a readiness to talk yet again, although the PA has at least the dignity to insist that no further negotiations can occur until Israel agrees to halt settlement expansion in the West Bank. To demand that Israel discontinue unlawful activities that impact upon what is being discussed should be regarded as a no brainer, but it is treated by the world media as though the Palestinians were seeking a huge concession from the Israelis, and in a way it is, if we acknowledge that the Netanyahu government is essentially a regime under the control of the settlers.

 

            The second of these under observed developments in the conflict is a definite shift toward nonviolence by the Palestinians. In different sites of struggle the Palestinians have confirmed the declarations of their leaders that resistance no longer primarily refers to armed struggle and suicide bombings, but is based on a range of nonviolent undertakings that challenge the legitimacy of Israeli policies, above all its oppressive policies and structures of abuse and exploitation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.

 

            There are several different manifestations of this turn to nonviolence and a global solidarity movement. The following instance are illustrative, and should have been treated as major news, but because Israel refuses to be challenged, even nonviolently, the world media have been silent, and offered very little overall analysis. Among the forms of nonviolent opposition are the following: repeated village demonstrations in the West Bank against the continued building of the separation wall located on occupied Palestinian territory and held to be unlawful in 2004 by a near unanimous International Court of Justice; strong support and some impressive results for a growing worldwide Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions initiative modeled on the Anti-Apartheid global campaign that was so effective in inducing the collapse of the racist regime in South Africa; and the Freedom Flotillas in which humanitarian activists from many countries challenged the Israeli blockade of Gaza that has persisted for five years and led to the ugly confrontation in May 2010 when the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara was assaulted in international waters by Israeli naval commandos, killing 8 Turks and one Turkish-American.

 

            Most impressive of these nonviolent challenges by Palestinians civil society has been a dramatic series of hunger strikes in Israeli jails that has reignited the Palestinian moral and political imagination. These strikes were initiated in December 2011 by the bravery of a single individual, Khader Adnan, who was harshly arrested in his home in the middle of the night and placed in ‘administrative detention’ a procedure used to hold suspects without charges, evidence, and trial. Adnan defiantly continued his strike for 66 days, was on the verge of death, and only agreed to resume eating when Israel somewhat relented.

 

            These hunger strikes mobilized widespread support among Palestinians, and an enthusiasm that contrasts with the bitter disillusionment directed at the failed peace talks. The strikes against administrative detention stimulated a related mass hunger strike of more than 1600 prisoners in Israeli prisons protesting conditions of their confinement. This parallel undertaking began on Palestinian Prisoners Day, April 17, and lasted for a full month until settled when Israel agreed to meet several of the demands put forward by the strikers.

 

            Hunger strikes are not grasped by the Western mind in their full significance. Such voluntary actions are an extreme form of nonviolence. The striker sacrificially foregoes violence against the other, seeking to awaken the conscience of those accused, bearing witness to abusive behavior, and appealing for solidarity from the wider affected community. Such extended hunger strikes send a moral message to both the oppressed and the oppressor, although the latter is likely to turn away in cynical disregard as has been the case with respect to the Israeli response.

 

            It should still be shocking, despite not being entirely surprising that the Western media has taken almost no notice of these remarkable hunger strikes and how they illustrate this new face of Palestinian resistance. We have only to take note of the ceaseless coverage given to Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese activist now enjoying sanctuary in the United States. Must we believe that Palestinian behavior is only of interest to Western media when it can be presented as fanatical and takes the form of violence against civilians? Of course this Chinese dissident deserves our sympathy, but should his story be so captivating as to completely eclipse the more extreme challenges posed by Palestinian hunger strikers that seem ready to make the supreme sacrifice of their own life? Recalling that the death in 1981 of Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker, helped open a door that led to a kind of peace in Northern Ireland and that Mohamed Boazizi’s death sparked revolution in Tunisia, only time will tell whether these Palestinian hunger strikes, unquestionably heroic, will lead the Palestinian people closer to realizing their right of self-determination and the finality of a just peace.            

 

            The third major development is the shift in the regional balance in favor of the Palestinians. The public opinion among the Arab people is strongly supportive of the Palestinian struggle and deeply alienated by the kind of Egyptian collaboration with Israel typified by the Mubarak regime. Turkey, once a strategic ally of Israel, is now an antagonist, as well as being an avowed backer of Palestinian claims. In light of these changes, I would have supposed that Israeli realists would be devoting their utmost energies to finding ways to reach a sustainable peace agreement that is sensitive to Palestinians rights under international law. Israeli realists may have sought refuge underground to avoid humiliation or worse in an Israel so firmly under the thumb of Netanyahu extremists who refuse to read this ominous writing on the regional wall, a refusal applauded by a U.S. Congress that is ready to jeopardize American security at the alter of Israeli militarism. Such an unnatural geopolitical relationship is currently unchallengeable in the United States, which is itself sad and dangerous.

 

            My claim is that these three sets of development should lead us to reimagine the Israel/Palestine struggle, and to channel our hopes and resources accordingly. The Israeli government and its strategic think tanks are clear that they are more threatened by this turn town militant nonviolence than by armed resistance. Israel has the weaponry and the skill on the battlefield, but fortunately their formidable propaganda machine has been unable to stem the rising tide of public opinion hostile to Israel and supportive of the Palestinian struggle.  

 

 

 

The Nakba: 2012

17 May


 

            The recent parallel hunger strikes in Israeli prisons reignited the political imagination of Palestinians around the world, strengthening bonds of ‘solidarity’ and reinforcing the trend toward grassroots reliance on nonviolent resistance Israeli abuses.  The crisis produced by these strikes made this year’s observance of Nakba Day a moral imperative for all those concerned with attaining justice and peace for the long oppressed Palestinian people whether they be living under occupation or in exile. The Palestinian mood on this May 14th, inflamed by abuse and frustration, but also inspired by and justly proud of exemplary expressions of courage, discipline, and nonviolent resistance on the part of imprisoned Palestinians who are mounting the greatest challenge of organized resistance that Israel has faced since the Second Intifada.

 

            The agreements ending the strikes were reached as a result of Israeli concessions, pledges to reduce reliance on administrative detention, abandon solitary confinement, and allow family visits, including from Gaza. Whether these pledges will be honored remains to be seen. Past Israeli behavior whether with respect to Israeli settlement activity or with respect to softening the impact of the blockade on Gaza that has been maintained for five years suggest that only careful monitoring will determine whether Israel abides by its commitments. The experience of Hana Shalabi is not encouraging. In an agreement that ended her hunger strike after 43 days in exchange for her release from administrative detention, she was not allowed to return to her West Bank home but sent to Gaza and ordered to remain there for three years.

Whether she was told about this condition at the time of her release has not been satisfactorily clarified, but it does strongly suggest that it is important to

Remember that there are two devils: one hangs out in the details, the other in the degree to which behavior corresponds with the pledges.

 

            As of now, the outcome of these hunger strikes have been justly celebrated as a victory for Palestinian resistance, and a further demonstration that at this stage the political struggle against Israeli occupation depends on the will and creativity of the people, and not on the diplomatic skill of the leadership.  Inter-governmental diplomacy of the sort associated with ‘the Oslo peace process’ and ‘the Quartet’s road map’ have provided a smokescreen to divert attention from Israeli expansionist ambitions for the past twenty years without moving the two sides one inch closer to a sustainable and just peace.

 

            Perhaps, the other good news for the Palestinians is the further decline of Israel’s global reputation. According to a BBC poll only Iran and  Pakistan are viewed more unfavorably than Israel among the 22 countries ranked, suggesting the utter failure of the expensive Israeli propaganda campaign. Even if Europe the unfavorable ratings associated with Israel are strikingly high: 74% Spain, 65%, France, 69% Germany, 68% Britain. What calls for explanation is why these European governments and the European Union ignore such a mandate from their own citizens, and continue to pursue policies that are unconditionally pro-Israeli.

 

            There are other signals of a shift in the diplomatic balance of forces. According to another new poll 61% of Egyptians want to cancel the 1979 Treaty with Israel. This is reinforced by the resentment of Egyptians toward  the United States’ role in their country in the Middle East generally. 79% of the 1000 Egyptians interviewed expressed their unfavorable view of the United States.

 

            Where are the Israeli ‘realists’ hiding? Instead of loose talk about attacking Iran isn’t time to give weight to such recent developments? The writing is on the wall. Military superiority and political violence do not ensure security in the early 21st century. Legality and legitimacy matter more than ever. It is Turkey that exerts regional influence, not because it throws its weight around, but because it has, despite some serious flaws, pursued a path that has brought greater prosperity at home, acted independently and effectively in fashioning its foreign policy, and achieved a governing style reflective of its cultural identity. These achievements generate a Turkish Model that is attractive, overlooking unresolved acute problems with minorities and a clumsy kind of unwillingness to respect dissenting voices.     

 

 

            Reverting to the Palestinian epic hunger strikes that continue to deserve our attention and admiration. It all started when a lone prisoner, Khader Adnan initiated a hunger strike to protest his abusive arrest and administrative detention on December 17th, which happens to be the exact anniversary of the day that the Tunisian vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, set himself on fire, his death leading directly to a wave of uprisings across the region that became known throughout the world as the Arab Spring. Adnan gave up his strike after 66 days when Israel relented somewhat on his terms of detention, and this was the same length of time that Bobby Sands maintained his hunger strike unto death so as to dramatize IRA prison grievances in North Ireland. It is not surprising that the survivors of the 1981 Irish protest should now be sending bonding messages of empathy and solidarity to their Palestinian brothers locked up in Israeli jails.

 

            What Adnan did prompted other Palestinians to take a similar stand. Hana Shalabi, like Adnan a few weeks later experienced a horrible arrest experience that included sexual harassment and was sent to prison without charges or trial four months after she had been ‘released’ in the Shalit prisoner exchange in October 2011. She too seemed ready to die rather than endure further humiliation, and was also eventually released, but punitively, being ‘deported’ to Gaza away from her West Bank village and family for a period of three years. Others hunger strikes followed, and now two types of hunger strike under way, each influenced by the other.

 

            The longer of the strike involves six protesting Palestinians who are in critical condition, with their lives at risk for at least the past week. Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahleh who have now refused food for an incredible 76 days, a sacrificial form of nonviolent resistance that can only be properly appreciated as a scream of anguish and despair on behalf of those who have been suffering so unjustly and mutely for far too long. It is a sign of Western indifference that even these screams seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

 

            The second closely related hunger strike that has lasted almost a month is an equally an extraordinary display of disciplined nonviolence, initiated on April 17th Palestinian Prisoners Day. By now there are reported to be as many as 2000 prisoners who are refusing all food until a set of grievances associated with deplorable prison conditions are satisfactorily. The two strikes are linked because the longer hunger strike inspired the mass strike, and the remaining several thousand non-striking Palestinian prisoners in Israel jails are already pledged to join the strike if there are any deaths among the strikers. This heightened prisoner consciousness has already been effective in mobilizing the wider community of Palestinians living under occupation, and beyond.

 

            This heroic activism gives an edge to the 2012 Nakba observance, and contrasts with the apparent futility of traditional diplomacy. The Quartet tasked with providing a roadmap to achieve a peaceful resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict seems completely at a loss, and has long been irrelevant to the quest for a sustainable peace, let alone the realization of Palestinian rights. The much publicized efforts of a year ago to put forward a statehood bid at the United Nations seems stalled indefinitely due to the crafty backroom maneuvers of the United States. Even the widely supported and reasonable recommendations of the Goldstone Report to seek accountability for Israeli leaders who seemed guilty of war crimes associated with the three weeks of attacks on Gaza at the end of 2008 has been permanently consigned to limbo. And actually the situation is even worse for the Palestinians than this summary depiction suggest. While nothing happens on the diplomatic level other clocks are ticking at a fast pace.  Several developments adverse to Palestinian interests and aspirations are taking place at an accelerating pace: 40,000 additional settlers are living in the West Bank since the temporary freeze on settlement expansion ended in September 2010, bringing the overall West Bank settler population to about 365,000, and well over 500,000 if East Jerusalem settlers are added on.

 

            Is it any wonder then that Palestinians increasingly view the Nakba not as an event frozen in time back in 1947 when as many as 700,000 fled from their homeland, but as descriptive of an historical process that has been going on ever since Palestinians began being displaced by Israeli immigration and victimized by the ambitions and tactics of the Zionist Project? It is this understanding of the Nakba as a living reality with deep historical roots that gives the hunger strikes such value. Nothing may be happening when it comes to the peace process, but at least, with heightened irony, it is possible to say that a lot is happening in Israeli jails. And the resolve of these hunger strikers is so great as to convey to anyone that is attentive that the Palestinians will not be disappeared from history. And merely by saying this there is a renewed sense of engagement on the part of Palestinians the world over and of their growing number of friends and comrades, that this Palestinian courage and sacrifice and fearlessness will bring eventual success and, in contrast, it is the governmental search for deals and bargains built to reflect power relations not claims of rights that seems so irrelevant that its disappearance would hardly be noticed.

 

            By and large, the Western media, especially in the United States, has taken virtually no notice of these hunger strikes, as if there was no news angle until the possibility of martyrdom for the strikers began at last to stir fears in Israeli hearts and minds of a Palestinian backlash and a public relations setback on the international level. Then and only then has there been speculation that maybe Israel could and should make some concessions, promising to improve prison conditions and limit reliance on administrative detention to situations where a credible security threat existed. Beyond this frantic quest by Israel to find a last minute pragmatic escape from this volatile situation posed by both hunger strikers on the brink of death and a massive show of solidarity by the larger prison population, is this sense that the real message of the Nakba is to underscore the imperative of self-reliance and nonviolence and ongoing struggle. The Palestinian future will be shaped by the people of Palestine or nothing. And it is up to us in the world, whether Palestinian or not, to join in their struggle to achieve justice from below, sufficiently shaking the foundations of oppressive structures of occupation and the exclusions of exile to create tremors of doubt in the Israeli colonial mindset. And as doubts grow, new possibilities suddenly emerge.

 

            For this reason, the Nakba should become important for all persons of good will, whether Palestinian or not, whether in Israel or outside, as an occasion for displays of solidarity. This might mean a global sympathy hunger strike as is being urged for May 17th or an added commitment to the BDS Campaign (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) or signing up to join the next voyage of the Freedom Flotilla. Certainly the Nakba is a time of remembrance for the historic tragedy of expulsion, but it is equally a time of reflection on what might be done to stop the bleeding and to acknowledge and celebrate those who are brave enough to say “this far, and no further.”   

Reflections on the Great Palestinian Prison Hunger Strikes of 2012

15 May

 

            Ché Guevara was once asked what was at the root of his revolutionary commitment. His response, which we should all take some moments to reflect upon, “it is about love.” Reading the words of Khader Adnan (‘Open Letter to the People of the World’) and Thaer Halahleh (‘Letter to my Daughter’), or the comments of Hana Shalabi’s mother and sister, or Bilal Diab’s father, led me to

recall Guevara’s illuminating comment. Only those with closed minds can read such words of devotion without feeling that the animating hunger of these Palestinians is for peace and justice, for love and dignity, and that their heroic strikes would have impossible without cherishing life and future freedom for the people of Palestine

 

            The nature of extreme self-sacrifice, provided it is autonomous and nonviolent, is an inherently spiritual undertaking even when its external appearance is political. For Christians, and others moved to tears by the life of Jesus, the Crucifixion exemplifies this encounter between the political and the spiritual.

 

 

            We can only marvel at the duplicitous double standards of the media. Without the Internet and Al Jazeera the West, especially the United States, would have rendered invisible these challenges to Israeli abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law. Only the settlement of the strike, and to some extent fear of Palestinian unrest should one of these hunger strikes die while in detention, was deemed somewhat newsworthy by the Western press.

 

            As many have observed, the media treatment of the Chinese dissident, Chen Guangcheng, or the global attention given to the Isreael soldier held captive in Gaza, underscores the media victimization of the Palestinian struggle, and exposes the illegitimacy of an information regime that rests upon such a flagrant disregard for objectivity, taking refuge in ill-disguised double standards: magnifying Israeli grievances, disappearing Palestinian wrongs.

 

 

            The Israeli media did have a cynical preoccupation with the hunger strikes wavering between worries of seeming to give in to pressure exerted by fears if the strikes continued Third Intifada and the characteristic concern of an oppressor that accommodating grievances would be treated as a show of weakness and an encouragement of further Palestinian resistance activity. For this reason the agreement reached to end the main strike has been sharply criticized by Israeli right-wing politicians.

 

            Israel is not alone in addressing prison hunger strikes in a detached manner that refuses to acknowledge the moral motivation, physical courage and discipline, and the righteousness of the demands for reforms. A 2011 protest hunger strike in a notorious California Pelican Bay State Prison and other prisons around the state led to this monumentally icy reaction from Nancy Kincaid, Director of Communications for California Correctional Health Service: “They have the right to die of starvation if they wish.”  And as the late Kurt Vonnegut so memorably reflected on the terror bombing of Dresden during World War II: “And so it goes.”

 

                          

            The ending of the hunger strikes on the eve of the 64th observance of Nakba Day is above all a protest against the particular reality of these protests against administrative detention, arrest procedures of a police state, and unacceptable prison regulations that include extensive and extended consignment to solitary confinement, taunting of prisoner suffering, denial of family visits (especially for Gaza families), and a variety of forms of inhumane treatment. It also needs to be understood as part of the general Palestinian struggle for protection and rights, above all, the inalienable right of self-determination, which is accorded to every people by virtue of Article 1 of both Human Rights Covenants.

 

            Any agreement reached with Israel should be carefully monitored and scrutinized. It was a disgrace that Israel should have released Hana Shalabi but punitively ‘deported’ her to Gaza where she is required to remain for three years before returning to her family and home in the West Bank village of Burqin.  Without charges to sentence Shalabi to what many have called the world’s largest open air prison is to compound the wrong done by detaining her in the first place, and is an implied admission by Israel that it is a punishment to be required to live in blockaded Gaza.

 

 

            Throughout this period of hunger strikes that was started by Khader Adnan on the day following his December 17th arrest I and others have taken notice of the IRA strike in the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland in which ten Irish prisoners fasted unto death, including the martyred Irish hero, Bobby Sands. What I have learned of while following the developments in the Palestinian strikes was the earlier celebrated hunger strike of Terrence MacSwiney, the elected lord mayor of county Cork who was arrested, charged, and convicted of his activism in the Irish struggle against British colonial rule.

MacSwiney upon conviction told a stunned court, “I whall be free, alive, or dead, within a month.” He died on October 25, 1920 in the Brixton Prison after an extraordinary 74 day hunger strike, and has been part of the proud tradition of Irish revolutionary iconography ever since. (For a detailed account see Dave Hannigan’s Terrence MacSwiney: The Hunger Strike that Rocked an Empire (Dublin: Obrien Press, 2010)) Unlike the blanket of denial and silence that has accompanied the Palestinian acts of protest, the MacSwiney story “became a worldwide sensation, causing workers to lay down tools on the New York waterfront, sparking riots in Barcelona and mass demonstrations from Buenos Aires to Boston. The international press covered his decline on a daily basis, raising the profile of the cause of Irish Independence to previously unheard-of-heights.” (from back cover material)

 

            Aside from the contrast in media coverage, there is the notable fact that MacSwiney faced charges in an open court, and was allowed to speak in his own defense. Governments that claim to be democracies and respectful of human rights and the rule of law should waste no time in abolishing administrative detention provisions. And if that is not done, at least the pretension of being a constitutional democracy should be abandoned. Is not time that we demanded that ‘power speak truth to the people’!

Palestinian Hunger Strikers: Fighting Ingrained Duplicity

12 May

The article below was written jointly by Noura Erakat and myself, and was posted on the Jadaliyya website on May 11, 2012

[Palestinians hold photographs of their relatives jailed in Israel during a support rally for Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 5, 2012. Image by Majdi Mohammed/AP Photo.][Palestinians hold photographs of their relatives jailed in Israel during a support rally for Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 5, 2012. Image by Majdi Mohammed/AP Photo.]

On his seventy-third day of hunger strike, Thaer Halahleh was vomiting blood and bleeding from his lips and gums, while his body weighs in at 121 pounds—a fraction of its pre-hunger strike size. The thirty-three-year-old Palestinian follows the still-palpable footsteps of Adnan Khader and Hana Shalabi, whose hunger strikes resulted in release. He also stands alongside Bilal Diab, who is also entering his seventy-third day of visceral protest. Together, they inspired nearly 2,500 Palestinian political prisoners to go on hunger strike in protest of Israel’s policy of indefinite detention without charge or trial.

Administrative detention has constituted a core of Israel’s 1,500 occupation laws that apply to Palestinians only, and which are not subject to any type of civilian or public review. Derived from British Mandate laws, administrative detention permits Israeli Forces to arrest Palestinians for up to six months without charge or trial, and without any show of incriminating evidence. Such detention orders can be renewed indefinitely, each time for another six-month term.

Ayed Dudeen is one of the longest-serving administrative detainees in Israeli captivity. First arrested in October 2007, Israeli officials renewed his detention thirty times without charge or trial. After languishing in a prison cell for nearly four years without due process, prison authorities released him in August 2011, only to re-arrest him two weeks later. His wife Amal no longer tells their six children that their father is coming home, because, in her words, “I do not want to give them false hope anymore, I just hope that this nightmare will go away.”

Twenty percent of the Palestinian population of the Occupied Palestinian Territories have at one point been held under administrative detention by Israeli forces. Israel argues these policies are necessary to ensure the security of its Jewish citizens, including those unlawfully resident in settlements surrounding Jerusalem, Area C, and the Jordan Valley—in flagrant contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention‘s Article 49(6), which explicitly prohibits the transfer of one’s civilian population to the territory it occupies.

The mass hunger strike threatens to demolish the formidable narratives of national security long propagated by Israeli authorities. In its most recent session, the United Nation’s Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination concluded that Israel’s policy of administrative detention is not justifiable as a security imperative, but instead represents the existence of two laws for two peoples in a single land. The Committee went on to state that such policies amount to arbitrary detention and contravene Article 3 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which prohibits “racial segregation and apartheid.” Nevertheless, this apartheid policy has so far escaped the global condemnation it deserves. In general, Palestinian grievances are consistently evaded with the help of media bias that accords faint coverage to signs of resistance, including even this extraordinary non-violent movement mounted by Palestinian victims of institutionalized state abuse.

Although there has not been a principled or total abandonment of armed struggle by Palestinians living under occupation, there has been a notable and dramatic shift in emphasis to the tactics of nonviolence. For yearsliberal commentators in the West have been urging the Palestinians to make such a shift, partly for pragmatic reasons. Even President Obama echoed this suggestion in his 2009 Cairo address when he said,

Palestinians must abandon violence….For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’sfounding.

But when Palestinians act in this recommended manner, the West averts its gaze and Israel responds with cynical disregard, dismissing near-death Palestinian hunger strikers as publicity stunts or cheap tricks to free themselves from imprisonment. Today, Palestinians have epitomized the best of American values that reflect the global history of non-violent resistance, as they wage a mass hunger strike, engage in a global boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israeli Apartheid, and risk their bodies on a weekly basis in peaceful protests against the Annexation Wall. The latter continues to expand its devastating encroachment upon and around Palestinian lands in defiance of a near unanimous Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice as well as countless Security Council Resolutions.

Yet, this America chooses to label the hunger strikers’ prison guards, the architects of racist laws and policies, as well as the engineers of the Apartheid Wall, as the sole and exemplary democracy in the Middle East. Rather than condemn Israel’s colonial practices, which constitute the core of Arab grievances and explain the widespread resentment of the US role in the Middle East, a US Congressional House panel has just now approved nearly one billion US dollars in additional military assistance to augment Israel’s anti-missile defense program. If passed, Israel will receive a record amount of four billion dollars in military aid next year—more than any country in the world.

There is a stark contrast between the round-the-clock coverage given to Chen Guangchen, the blind Chinese human rights activist who escaped from house arrest to the safety of the US Embassy, and the scant notice given this unprecedented Palestinian challenge to the Israeli prison system that is subjecting the protesters to severe health risks, even death. What is more, such hunger strikes are part of a broader Palestinian reliance on a powerful symbolic appeal to the conscience of humanity in their quest for long-denied rights under international law. Said deprivations include a disavowal of a peace process that has gone nowhere for decades, while a pattern of settlement expansion has made any realization of the widely endorsed “two-state solution” increasingly implausible. The prolonged nature of the occupation also steadily transforms what was supposed to be a temporary occupation into a permanent arrangement best understood as a mixture of annexation and apartheid.

In the face of this opportunity to place pressure upon Israel to comply with international law and human rights norms, the international community of governments and inter-governmental institutions has been grotesquely silent as Palestinians place their very lives at sacrificial risk. For its part, the United Nations’ most senior officials said nothing until a group of forty young protesters blocked the entrance of UN offices in Ramallah on 8 May, demanding the issuance of a statement on behalf of the hunger striking prisoners. Together with the help of a global social media campaign to trend #UNclosed, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and UNRWA’s director Filippo Grandi have finally issued statements expressing deep concern. Grandi has gone the farthest to urge that Israel either provide trials for the detainees or release them, though his statement has been conspicuously removed from the Agency’s website.

It is hard to deny the irony of tacit approval, at worst, or timid condemnation, at best, in the United Nations, the United States, or elsewhere. In its 2008 Boumedienne decision, the US Supreme Court declared that (arguably) the world’s most villainous and immoral persons are entitled to habeas corpus review in US courts in order to avoid the cruelty of indefinite detention. Yet, Israel’s policy of detaining indigenous Palestinians who inhabit the lands the State seeks to confiscate and settle for more than four decades has denied those Palestinians exactly such legal protection. What are Palestinians to do in the face of such frustrating circumstances? What message does the lack of international support for their strong displays of nonviolence, self-sacrifice, and personal bravery send to them and to their Arab and Muslim counterparts who are once more exposed to blatant US hypocrisy in the region?

Palestinian civil society is now mainly opting for explicit acts of collective nonviolent resistance to register their dissatisfactions with the failures of the United Nations—or inter-governmental diplomacy in general—to produce a sustainable peace that reflects Palestinian rights under international law. The main expression of this embrace of nonviolence is the adoption of tactics used so successfully by the anti-Apartheid campaign to change the political climate in racist South Africa, yielding a nonviolent path to multiracial constitutional democracy. At the present time the growing BDS movement is working to achieve similar results.

Let us recall that successful global nonviolent movements are not restricted to fasts and marches, but include the boycott, non-cooperation, and civil disobedience tactics deployed by Palestinians today. Though President Obama, encumbered as he may be by a domestic election cycle, may feel compelled to ignore Palestinian responses to his call, the rest of the world should not.  Certainly, US-based and global citizens should demand that the Western media begin to act responsibly when dealing with injustices inflicted on the Palestinian people, and not sheepishly report human rights abuses only when committed by the adversaries of their state. The media itself is a tactical target and a residual problem. In solidarity with the hunger strikers, civic allies should address the institutional edifice upholding administrative detention. It extends from a discriminatory core and therefore its requisite treatment includes ensuring the enjoyment of internationally guaranteed rights; rights enshrined by the BDS call to action and reified by the movement’s steady and deliberate progression.

GravatarMy U. S. government, in this situation, is misguided and wrong wrong wrong….

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Learning from the Irish Hunger Strikes of 1981 and the Palestinian Challenge

11 May

 

Prefatory Note

John Hurson in Ireland has been keenly conscious of the affinities between the historic Irish hunger strike of 1981 and the ongoing Palestinian hunger strikes. He has travelled to Gaza on several occasions on humanitarian aid convoys, and is the founder of the on line Gaza TV News service. I suggested that we collaborate on an article that might recall the Irish experience, especially the parallels and the potential implications for the future of the Palestinian struggle.

John Hurson ends his reflective essay with a comparison between the hardheartedness of Netanyahu and the British leader at the time, Margaret Thatcher. Although more than 30 years have passed since Bobby Sands and his nine fellow prisoners died as a result of carrying their prison protests to their ultimate point of no return.   I hope and pray that no Palestinian hunger strikers die. Their moral authority and political energy is needed to galvanize further these glimmerings of a Palestinian awakening. The impact of Khader Adnan and later Hana Shalabi, after their release from Israeli prisons is illustrative, and helps us all understand that although abusive arrest and administrative detention is the immediate cause of the hunger strikes, their agenda was always far broader than seeking personal relief. Their intention, already partially effective, was to shine a bright light of truth on the manner in which Israel has used administrative detention, as well as on broader concerns about Palestinian imprisonment more generally, and beyond this, to call attention to the unlawful and immoral denial through decades and across generations of fundamental Palestinians rights under a structure called internationally ‘occupation’ but experienced as a lethal blend of annexation, apartheid, and settler colonialism.

At this time present medical condition of at least six long-term hunger strikers has been reported to be grave for the past several days. The respected Palestinian NGO, Addameer, gave details in its May 9th release entitled “Update: Situation of Long-Term Hunger Strikers Becomes Increasingly Urgent.” Those in critical condition include Thaer Halahleh and Bilal Diab (74 days); Hassan Shafadi (68 days); Omar Abu Shalal (66 days); Mohammad Taj (55 days); Jaafar Azzedine (51 days).

There have been calls made for a worldwide empathy and solidarity hunger strike on Tuesday, May 15, the day that the Nabka is observed by Palestinians and their friends worldwide. I intend to make this gesture of support, and hope many others will join, and send a further message that the cause of Palestinian justice is rising to the top of the moral agenda of the peoples of the world even in the face of the awful complicity of Western governments with an intolerable situation of prolonged occupation and exile.

The featured cartoon, suggested John Hurson, is by Carlos Latoof, the award winning Brazilian cartoonist who has so ofter memorably depicted the torments and tormentors of Palestine.

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RECALLING THE IRISH HUNGER STRIKE OF 1981

By John Hurson of County Tyrone, Ireland

In 1980, 7 IRA men in the H Block prison embarked on a hunger strike seeking to re establish their political status, which the British Government had ended 4 years before. After 53 days, and the men close to death, a deal was apparently on the table from the Thatcher led British Government, and the men called of their hunger strike. In the days that followed, it became clear that there was no deal.   2 months later, another hunger strike was announced, and on March 1st, Bobby Sands began his hunger strike. As part of their strategy, different men would join at later stages. Several men would follow Bobby, and by the end of the summer, 10 men had died before the hunger strike was called off.

The prisoners had 5 demands:

1. The right not to wear a prison uniform;

2. The right not to do prison work;

3. The right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits;

4. The right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week;

5. Full restoration of remission lost through the protest.

In the months that followed, several of the demands were met, and within 2 years, all 5.   A few weeks after Bobby started his fast, the MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone died, and an election was called. A decision was made to run Bobby as a candidate in order to gain more attention to their plight, and on his 41st day on hunger strike, he was elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone.   His election lit a spark where the Republican movement saw the impact of electoral success. The rise of Sinn Fein to where they are today can be traced back to this victory. Today, Sinn Fein are a major political force in Ireland, and have elected representatives in all corners of Ireland. During the negotiations that led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Fein played a major role. Today, Martin McGuiness is the Deputy First Minister in the Stormont Executive, and meets world leaders on a regular basis. Gerry Adams, the party leader, is an elected TD (Teachta Dala, Gaellic designation for Member of Parliament) in the Irish Parliament.   There is no doubt that the hunger strike of 1981 changed things forever, not only for the prisoners in the H Blocks, but politically. The names of the 10 men are ingrained forever in Irish history, and the dark days of 1981 are now a beacon of hope for the future.   February 21st, 2012,

Khader Adnan ended his hunger strike after 66 days, the same length of time Bobby Sands endured before he died on May 5th 1981. Throughout Khader’s hunger strike, he was compared to Bobby Sands, the first of ten men to die in the Hunger Strike of 1981.   Forever, the 2 men will be talked about in the same breath for their courage, determination, and in Bobby’s case, ultimate sacrifice.   At the beginning of March 1981, Bobby Sands began his Hunger Strike. He died on May 5th.   Following Bobby, Francis Hughes, Ray McCreesh, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee, and Mickey Devine all died before the strike was called off.

 

As Khader Adnan approached the 50 day mark, I contacted Tommy McKearney and he recorded a message for Khader and his family. Tommy’s message carried a unique understanding of Khader’s condition as Tommy had gone 53 days without food in 1980.   I contacted Oliver Hughes in South Derry. Oliver’s brother, Francis, died after 59 days, and his cousin Thomas McElwee after 62. Oliver  recorded a very powerful message .   As Khader was on his 64th day, I got in contact with the family of Ray McCreesh. They sent a statement of support for Khader and his family. Ray McCreesh (61 days), died on the same day as Patsy O’Hara.(61 days)   Patsy ’s brother Tony sent a message of support  on behalf of himself, and his mother Peggy.   Mickey Devine was the last of the 10 men to die in 1981. Mickey’s children, Michael og and Louise, sent through a heartfelt message,. considering they were the same age as Khader’s children when their father died, their voices added a special meaning. Mickey Devine, (27), died on August 20th 1981   In addition to these messages, two other former hunger strikers added their voices. Pat Sheehan(55 days), and Ray McCartney  (53 days), sent a video message. Danny Morrison, who was a friend of Bobby Sands also issued a statement.

On day 66, Khader reached an agreement with the Israeli Government to end his strike on the condition that they would not renew his Administrative Detention order, and release him on April 17th.   Following Khader’s hunger strike several other prisoners followed his example, and began hunger strikes in protest at their incarceration under the Administrative Detention policy.   On April 17th, over 1,500 Palestinian prisoners initiated a mass  hunger strike. The plight of the Palestinian prisoners was set to take centre stage, and their struggle brought to the worlds attention.   In the days that followed, hundreds more joined them   Adding a voice of support for Bilal Diab and Thaer Hallahla who were on day 70 of their hunger strike, was Laurence McKeown. Before ending his fast, he had gone 70 days without food. He knew only to well the dangers facing both men, and he recorded a message of support.   Two days later, Pat Sheehan, MLA, issued a statement on behalf of Sinn Fein calling for an immediate end to Administrative Detention, and support for the prisoners.   Bilal and Thaer are on day 74 day of their hunger strike.

Ireland has a long history of the use of a hunger strike as a form of protest. It has been used for centuries. Palestinian prisoners have been inspired by Irish hunger strikes in the past, and this one is no different.   In 1981, Palestinians prisoners sent a message of support to the families of the 10 men who died. Their memory burns bright among current prisoners on hunger strike.   This hunger strike has resonated widely in Ireland. .   The voices have roared around the world, playing a pivotal role in bringing international awareness and pressure on the Israeli Government, and their treatment of Palestinian prisoners.   Historically, Ireland has had its fair share of tyrants. Amongst them, Margaret Thatcher is in a league of her own for allowing 10 Irish men to die on hunger strike before granting their 5 demands.

 

Judging from his past behaviour, Netanyahu, like Thatcher in 1981, is unlikely to step in to avoid having any of these Palestinian die during their hunger strikes.

Is the fuse being lit for a 3rd Intifada? Only the future will give us an answer.

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