More than 1,500 Palestinian political prisoners began a hunger strike on April 17 for better conditions inside Israeli jails. Their demands include access to education, proper medical care and an end to the practice of solitary confinement. They are striking to make their families’ lives easier, too—for regular visitation rights and respectful treatment of visitors by prison administrators. And they are striking to protest one of the most obviously unjust Israeli policies—administrative detention, or imprisoning people indefinitely without charge.
Israel holds 6,300 Palestinian political prisoners—300 of whom are children. Five hundred are held under administrative detention; 458 have been sentenced to life in jail; 61 are women; 13 are members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC); 70 are citizens of Israel. As of December 2016, 24 were journalists; one was a circus clown. At least 400 Palestinians have been arrested in recent years for social media posts considered by Israeli officials to be incitement to violence. In addition, it came to light that Israeli police arrested another 400 people who had committed no crime and written nothing that the police deemed threatening. Instead, they were arrested based on an algorithm that purports to predict who will commit a crime.
A hunger strike is a wrenching experience for those who do it. About two weeks in, strikers’ bodies begin to break down muscle in order to survive. Strikers feel cold; they lose the ability to stand up, then to hear and eventually to see. On top of that, Palestinians go on hunger strike inside prisons run by a state that dismisses them not only as enemies but also as “terrorists.” Prison administrators have punished strikers by moving them forcibly from jail to jail, and by placing some in solitary confinement. An Israeli youth group, meanwhile, held a barbecue outside a prison in the West Bank.
On the outside, the battle to delegitimize Palestinian prisoners continues, too. A May 1 New York Times op-ed by Gilad Erdan, Israel’s minister of public security and strategic affairs, used the terms “terrorism” or “terrorist” no fewer than 18 times—in a piece under 900 words long.
Palestinians recognize that Israeli prisons are part of a historical structure of oppression. Also in the New York Times, prisoner and PLC member Marwan Barghouti stressed the colonial nature of Israeli prisons, as well as the ways in which Israel’s detention policies break international law. Former prisoner and current PLC member Khaleda Jarrar emphasized to the Washington Post Palestinians’ right to resist an illegal occupation.
Resistance is transformative. Anthropologist Lena Meari writes of the practice of steadfastness or sumud as deployed by Palestinian prisoners. Being steadfast gives individuals the strength to endure Israeli interrogation; it connects children in prison to their parents outside; it creates a collectivity of prisoners under interrogation who refuse to give each other up. She writes, “Sumud…is an infinite creative process, a string of echoes that reflects and creates victory…. Underneath the skin of the one-in-sumud resides all those-in-sumud.”
So it is that the prisoner has stopped eating on behalf of the right of parents to visit, while the parents, outside of prison, hold the pictures of their children, the prisoners, as they gather for marches through their home cities. The parents are free from prison, but they traverse the layers of violence and ruin that 50 years of Israeli military occupation have left behind.
Indeed, the strike mobilizes families and communities to reassert that they will stop everything so that the prisoners’ quality of life may improve. A general strike in the West Bank on April 27 closed shops, banks, factories, government institutions and universities—everything except high schools, emergency medical services and hospitals. There are solidarity tents set up in most cities. Community-based organizations have organized rallies and prepared public art. The strike is also a time for reviving the local boycott of Israeli products. As former prisoner Ahlam al-Wahsh says, “We go to the separation wall every day and cast Israeli goods there, to send a message to the occupiers that they are not welcome here. We struggle to not have their goods in our cities.” Her life has been shaped by her imprisonment as a teenager in the late 1970s: “I did not so much leave an Israeli prison as I left a Palestinian academy that built the person I am now.”
It is painful to know that one’s loved ones are on hunger strike. Notes Isra’ Abu Srour, the niece of a striker, Nasser Abu Srour, who has been in prison for a quarter-century, “It has been especially difficult for my grandmother. She spends all day in the solidarity tent. We all go to every procession. It is the least we can do.” She added, “Hopefully their demands will be met, because they are simple, humanitarian demands.” The Israeli human rights organization B’tselem agrees with this assessment. Indeed, as former prisoner Khaled al-Azraq explains, almost all of the demands are actually requests to reinstate privileges that prisoners had gained in previous strikes, but have been taken away over the years. Al-Azraq himself participated in hunger strikes in 1987, 1994, 1998, 2000 and 2004.
Al-Azraq adds that the strike is designed to mobilize the Palestinian street and revive esteem for the prisoners’ movement. “The strike is organized under the title, ‘A Strike for Dignity and Freedom,’” he explained. “The prisoners do not have their freedom because they are in prison, but they do have their dignity. Those of us outside need to restore our own freedom and dignity.” Al-Wahsh and al-Azraq, too, spend their days in the solidarity tent. “I try to be with the mothers,” said al-Wahsh, “to encourage them and lift their spirits.”
Just a few months before the Palestinian prisoners started to refuse food, there was another prison strike on another continent that denounced a history of racist dispossession. On September 9, 2016, on the forty-fifth anniversary of the Attica prison uprising in New York, 24,000 prisoners in 20 prisons in at least 12 states, including Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Oregon and Georgia, went on strike against prison labor conditions in the United States. As organizers stated, “In one voice, rising from the cells of long-term solitary confinement, echoed in the dormitories and cell blocks from Virginia to Oregon, we prisoners across the United States vow to finally end slavery in 2016.” The Thirteenth Amendment that otherwise ended slavery contains an exception for prison labor.
For anyone who would doubt that all prison is political, it is worth examining the rates of incarceration of black men in the US alongside the rate of imprisonment of Palestinians. According to the NAACP, one in six African-American men has been incarcerated. According to the Palestinian human rights group Addameer, approximately one in five Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories has been jailed since Israeli occupation began in 1967.
The justice system in each case is severely compromised, though in different ways. For Palestinians, conviction rates exceed 99 percent. In the US, 97 percent of criminal charges that are not dismissed are resolved through plea bargains rather than trials. This fact is troubling because even if they are innocent, people have many reasons to plead guilty rather than risk a trial.
In the US, prison undermines democracy, with approximately one in every 13 African-Americans of voting age unable to vote due to felon disenfranchisement laws. In three states, Florida, Virginia and Kentucky, more than one in five African-Americans is thus disenfranchised. Of course, all of the Palestinians living under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are denied the right to participate in Israeli elections despite the fact that Israel has maintained the occupation for a half-century.
The prison system feeds racism that kills. In the US, the death penalty is disproportionately carried out against people of color. In the final week of April, authorities in Arkansas scheduled a parade of gruesome executions—eventually putting four people to death—to beat the expiration dates of the drugs used for the lethal injections. This racism fuels police brutality. On April 29, a police officer shot a 15-year old black boy, Jordan Edwards, in the head as he drove a car away from a party in a Dallas suburb. Earlier in the spring, a young Palestinian man, Mohammad Aamar Jalad, died alone in a hospital room-turned-prison cell three months after Israeli soldiers shot and detained him when he crossed the street in an apparently suspicious manner on his way to his last chemotherapy appointment. Israeli army officials did not bother to update his family on his condition, even when he died.
Israeli and US prisons are, of course, distinct from one another. But when we look at them together, we can recognize that prison as a technology not only threatens the lives of those who live within prison, but also allows for the racist and deadly segregation of one part of a population from the rest. When we struggle against prison, we struggle for the dignity of black and brown people, of the dispossessed. As Ahlam al-Wahsh put it simply, speaking of the ongoing Palestinian hunger strike, “We must win, because the prisoners’ battle is the Palestinians’ battle.”