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Two Sides of the Palestinian Coin: Hunger Strike/Gaza

28 May

 

 

The Palestinian hunger strike protesting Israeli prison conditions was suspended on May 27th after 40 days, at a time when many of the 1000 or so strikers were experiencing serious deteriorations of health, most were by then hospitalized, and the holy period of Ramadan about to commence creating continuity between the daytime fasting of the faithful and the prior desperate protest of the strikers. What was perhaps most notable about this extraordinary gesture of a mass prolonged hunger strike was that it was treated as hardly worthy of notice by the world media or even by the United Nations, which ironically is regularly attacked by diplomats and the media in the West for being overly preoccupied with Israeli wrongdoing.

 

It needs appreciating that recourse to a collective hunger strike is a most demanding form of political resistance, invariably provoked by prolonged outrage, requiring courage and a willingness to endure hardship by participants, as well subjecting their will to as harsh a test as life offers. To continue foregoing food for 40 days is a life-threatening and heroic, a commitment never lightly undertaken.

 

With Bobby Sands as their leader ten IRA imprisoned hunger strikers starved themselves unto their death in 1981. The world watched in rapt attention as this extraordinary spectacle of self-inflicted death unfolded day by day. Without openly acknowledging what was happening before their eyes, hardened political leaders in London silently took notice of the moral challenge they confronted, shifting tactics abruptly, and began working toward a political compromise for Northern Ireland in a manner that would have been unthinkable without the strike.

 

The Palestinians can harbor no such hopes, at least in the near term. Israel deliberately clouds the moral and political embedded challenges by releasing videotapes supposedly showing ‘snacks’ secretly being eaten by the strike leader, Marwan Barghouti. This fact that this accusation was vigorously denied by his immediate family and lawyer is occasionally noted in the world media, but only as a detail that does not diminish the impact of discrediting the authenticity of the strike. Whether true or not, Israel succeeded in shifting attention away from the strike and avoids doing anything significant to improve prison conditions, much less take steps to end the severe abuses of the Palestinian people over the course of an incredible period of 70 years with no end in sight. Prison authorities immediately resorted to punitive measures to torment those prisoners who were on strike. Such a response underscores ‘democratic’ Israel’s refusal to treat with respect nonviolent forms of resistance by the Palestinian people.

 

At this same time as the prison drama was unfolding, Gaza was experiencing a deepening of its prolonged crisis that has been cruelly manipulated by Israel to keep the civilian population of almost two million on the brink of starvation and in constant fear of military onslaught. Supposedly the caloric intake for subsistence has been used as a benchmark by Israeli authorities for restricting the flow of food to Gaza. And since that seems insufficient to impose the level of draconian control sought by Israel, three massive military attacks and countless incursions since the end of 2008 have inflicted heavy casualties on the civilian population of Gaza and caused much devastation, a cumulative catastrophe for this utterly vulnerable, impoverished, captive population. In such a context, the fact that Hamas has retaliated with what weaponry it possessed, even if indiscriminate, is to be expected even if not in accord with international humanitarian law.

 

A leading intellectual resident of Gaza, Haider Eid, has recently written a poignant dispatch from the front lines of continuous flagrant Israelu criminality, “On Gaza and the horror of the siege,” [<http://mondoweiss.net/2017/gaza-horror-siege/&gt;, May 25, 2017]. Eid ends his essay with these disturbing lines:

“We fully understand that the deliberate withholding of food or the means to grow food in whatever form is yet another strategy of Israel’s occupation, colonization, and apartheid in Palestine, and, therefore, should be viewed as an abnormality, even a pogrom!

 But what we in Gaza cannot fathom is: Why it is allowed to happen?”

 

At the start of Ramadan, Haider Eid appeals to the world to stand up against what he calls ‘incremental genocide’ “ by heeding the BDS call made by Palestinian Civil Society.”

 

It is significant that Eid’s appeal is to civil society rather than to the Palestinian Authority entrusted with representing the Palestinian people on the global stage or for a revival of ‘the peace process’ that went on for twenty years within the Oslo Framework or to the UN that accepted responsibility after Britain gave up its Palestine mandate at the end of World War II. These conventional modes of conflict resolution have all failed, while steadily worsening the situation of the Palestinian people and nurturing the ambition of the Zionist movement to reach its goal of territorial expansion.

 

Beyond this, Eid notes that the authority of BDS is a result of an authoritative Palestinian call to which the peoples of the world are implored to respond. This shift away from intergovernmental empowerment from above to a reliance on empowerment by a victimized people and their authentic representatives embodies Palestinian hopes for a more humane future, and for an eventual realization of long denied rights.

 

It is appropriate to merge in our moral imagination the ordeals of the prisoners in Israeli jails with that of the people of Gaza without forgetting the encompassing fundamental reality—the Palestinian people as a whole, regardless of their specific circumstances, are being victimized by an Israeli structure of domination and discrimination in a form that constitutes apartheid and different forms of captivity.

 

It seems that the hunger strike failed to induce Israel to satisfy many of the demands of the strikers for improved conditions. What it did achieve was to remind Palestinians and the world of the leadership gifts of Marwan Barghouti, and it awakened the Palestinian population to the moral and political imperative of sustaining and manifesting resistance as an alternative to despair, passivity, and submission. Israelis and some of their most ardent supporters speak openly of declaring victory for themselves, defeat for the Palestinians. Regardless of our religious or ethnic identity we who live outside the circle of Israeli oppression should be doing our utmost to prevent any outcome that prolongs Palestinian unjust suffering or accepts it as inevitable.

 

What is unspeakable must become undoable.

 

 

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THE PALESTINIAN HUNGER STRIKE: “Our chains will be broken before we are..”

16 May

 

 

On April 17th at least 1500 Palestinian prisoners launched a hunger strike of indefinite duration, responding to a call from Israel’s most famous Palestinian prisoner, Marwan Barghouti. It also happens to be that Barghouti is the most popular political leader, far more liked, trusted, and admired that the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. Barghouti is serving a series of lifetime terms for his alleged role in directing an operation during the Second Intifada in which five Israelis were killed.

 

Barghouti who has been in prison for fifteen years, gave his reasons for the strike as “torture, inhumane and degrading treatment, and medical negligence,” as well as a failure to abide by international legal standards pertaining to prison conditions during a military occupation. Even the normally timid International Committee of the Red Cross acknowledged prisoner demands by issuing a public statement asserting that the denial of family visits and moving Palestinian prisoners and detainees outside of the occupied territory to Israeli jails were violations of international treaty norms set forth in the Fourth Geneva Convention governing belligerent occupation.

 

Because Barghouti expressed his grievances in an article somewhat surprisingly published by the NY Times on April 16th. Surprising because the Times, an influential media outlet, has over the years been reliably deferential to the Israeli rationalizations for Israeli contested policies and behavior. It turns out that the newspaper was nervous about this departure from its normal operating mode. Barghouti’s piece only appeared in its international edition, and had a qualifying editorial note appended: “This article explained the writer’s prison sentence but neglected to provide sufficient context by stating the offenses of which he was convicted. They were five counts of murder and membership in a terrorist organization. Mr. Barghouti declined to offer a defense at his trial and refused to recognize the Israeli court’s jurisdiction and legitimacy.” [italics in the original]

 

In retaliation for daring to publish this opinion piece Barghouti was severely punished. He was immediately placed in solitary confinement, has not been allowed to change his clothes for the past month, and is inspected by prison guards four times a day.

 

The notorious Canadian ultra Zionist media watchdog, Honest Reporting, explains on its website that its goal is “defending Israel from media bias.” Honest Reporting expressed its outrage by condemning the NY Times for opening its pages to a convicted Palestinian ‘terrorist.’ It is Orwellinan to so describe Barghouti, a political leader courageously defending his people against an unlawful and oppressive occupation that is approaching its 50th anniversary, and is now best understood as a crime against humanity taking the form of apartheid victimizing the Palestinian people as a whole, and not just those living under occupation. If the Honest Reporting was indeed honest it would expose the pronounced media bias in the West shielding Israel from international accountability and obscuring the severity of Palestinian grievances under international law and morality.

 

The world media treatment of this massive Palestinian strike is typical, although nevertheless disappointing. It gives meager attention to the dramatic character of such a prison protest that has continued for over a month, stimulating many solidarity demonstrations throughout occupied Palestine, a sympathy 24-hour hunger strike by South Africans including the prominent Deputy President Cyril Rhamaposa, and widespread shows of support throughout the Palestinian diaspora. The reaction of the Palestinian Authority has been evasive, with Abbas giving a token show of public support for prisoner goals, while letting it be known privately that he hopes the strike will end as soon as possible.

 

The behavior of the Israeli Prison Service is an indirect confirmation of prisoner discontent. In a sadistic taunt, Israeli settlers were allowed to have a barbecue in the parking lot in front of one of the prisons, apparently mocking the hunger strikers with the pungent aroma of meat being grilled. Worse than this, a fake video was distributed by prison official purporting to show Barghouti having a snack in his cell. This effort to discredit the strike and its leader has been angrily denied. Khader Shkirat, Barghouti’s lawyer, explained that there was no way food could be smuggled to someone in solitary, especially with frequent room searches. It was finally conceded by prison officials that food was delivered to Barghouti’s cell by prison guards trying unsuccessfully to tempt him to break the fast. Barghouti on his side responded via his lawyer, “I plan to escalate my hunger strike soon. There is no backtracking. We will continue until the end.” Barghouti, 58, has according to the last report has lost 29 pounds since the start of the strike, and now weighs 119, planning to refuse even water.

 

Even if this dire commitment is not carried through to a potentially grim finality it will not tarnish the significance of what has been undertaken, and the great reluctance of the world to focus its attention on such a display of nonviolent martyrdom. This is not the first Palestinian prison strike motivated by abusive prison conditions and instances of administrative detention, arresting and jailing without any formal charges. But it appears to be the most consequential due to the participation of Marwan Barghouti along with so many other Palestinian prisoners as well as producing many displays of solidarity beyond the prison walls.

 

As Ramzy Baroud has pointed out in an Al Jazeera article published on May 10, 2017, the strike, although putting forth demands relating to prison conditions, is really a reflection of the underlying ordeal, what he refers to as “the very reality of Palestinian life”; it is above all “a call for unity against factionalism and Israeli occupation.” The distractions created by the Trump presidency, Brexit and the rise of the European right-wing, and turmoil in the Middle East have given Israel’s leadership the political space to push their expansionist agenda toward an imposed outcome of one Jewish state imposing its will on two distinct peoples. Such an endgame for this version of colonialist displacement and subjugation of the indigenous majority population will extend Palestinian suffering in the short-run, but will over time undermine Israeli security and stability, and bring the long Palestine nightmare to an end.

 

The British leadership finally appreciated their own interests, forging a political compromise in Northern Ireland in the form of the Good Friday Agreement, which while fragile and imperfect, has mostly spared Catholics and Protestants further bloodshed. Will the Israeli and U.S. leadership grow responsive to the moral and legal imperatives that call for a sustainable and just peace between these two peoples before the political imperative of such an essential outcome assume more menacing forms?

 

Against all expectations, the South African leadership did eventually become so responsive, but only after enough pressure was exerted internally and internationally. The South African leadership produced a new dawn by releasing its prime ‘terrorist’ inmate, Nelson Mandela, from prison, and the rest is history. Marwan Barghouti is clearly available to play such an historical role in relation to Israel. It will be a tragedy if Zionist ambitions and American led geopolitics preclude this from happening! The road to peace for Israel is the similar to the road to peace for apartheid South Africa: dismantle the apartheid regime that now dominates and discriminates against the Palestinian people on a systematic and totalizing basis. Such a projected future may seem a dream, but dreams can be made to come true through the dynamics of a struggle for justice. If so, we may look back on Barghouti’s hunger strike as the beginning of a winning Palestinian endgame.

 

It is important that we appreciate that a hunger strike is not only a pure form of nonviolence, but is also a self-inflicted sacrifice by those who seek to exhibit their opposition to the existing state of affairs in this manner, hoping to create conditions that produce change. It is an extreme type of resistance that in its essence is an appeal to the conscience and compassion of its opponents and public opinion generally. As Gandhi found out in racist South Africa, if that conscience and compassion are not sufficiently present within a given society such tactics are futile, and violent resistance becomes the only alternative to submission and despair. Israel has been repeatedly challenged by the Palestinians to do the right thing, but responds increasingly by treating all of its adversaries as ‘terrorists’ regardless of their behavior, while itself continuing to defy international law thereby denying the most fundamental rights to the Palestinian people and repeatedly relying on excessive force to safeguard its dominance.