‘When you feel that all the doors are sealed, and you stand there humiliated and alone, knowing in advance that the court system is a charade, one is left with no other option but a hunger strike.” These are the words of Mohammad Allan, a former Palestinian hunger striker, during a telephone interview.The point behind the above interview was for me to understand why Palestinian prisoners choose such an extreme method of protest while in Israeli detention. The latest of such cases is that of Mohammad Al Qeeq.
Both Al Qeeq and Allan were imprisoned under similar circumstances, and were subjected to torture and humiliation while in prison, according to various rights groups. They were interrogated without the presence of lawyers, and held indefinitely under a notorious law known as ‘administration detention’ law, with Al Qeeq still enduring these horrific scenarios.
In Israel, with its various policies bent on abuse, humiliation and torture, the above scenario is applied as law. In other countries, these methods are applied in extreme circumstances. But, in Israel, it is standard procedure. Al Qeeq, for example, is a journalist with no proven militant ties. The accusations levelled against him have not been formally presented, but rather propagated through Israeli media spokespersons who claim that he used his reports for Saudi Al-Majd TV to “incite” violence. Allan and other hunger strikers we spoke to were held under similar circumstances, with “evidence” that is scanty.
Last Thursday, the Israeli Supreme Court made a decision to “suspend” the administration detention order, on the condition that Al Qeeq was not allowed to leave the Israeli hospital, where he was shackled to his bed for many days and nights. As was expected, he refused, fully aware that the suspension order, similar to the one that the court passed to end Mohammad Allan’s equally protracted hunger strike, was not a promise of freedom. The subversive aim was to have him end his strike before securing yet another six-month detention order, as Israeli military courts often do. On the day the court made its decision, Al Qeeq’s hunger strike had crossed the 72-day mark.
Both Allan and Al Qeeq are 33 years old; the former from Nablus and the latter from Ramallah. Despite the obvious risks, they both felt compelled to enter into a hunger strike in exchange for their possible freedom — and even to use their bodies as a voice so the world can see what it often refuses to hear. “It is our last and only choice,” said Allan, 33, who underwent a hunger strike for so long that it resulted in brain damage, and nearly cost him his life.
“First, I made my intentions clear by refusing three meals in a row, and by sending a written note through the Dover (Hebrew for a prisoner who serves as a spokesperson for a prison ward).” Then, the punishment commences. “It is like a psychological warfare between the prison authorities, state and legal system apparatuses against a single individual,” which, according to Allan, lasts for 50-60 days.
That ‘warfare’ is duplicated in all such cases, and not one person was ever spared the costly price expected of him or her. Hana Shalabi’s hunger strike lasted for 47 days, after which she was eventually deported to Gaza, far away from her northern village of Burgin, near Jenin.
Khader Adnan, 37, is also from Jenin. His experience is typical in some sense to the rest, but also unique in the sense that he was held under the notorious laws for renewable six-month periods that dragged into years. Like Al Qeeq, he too declared the terms of his battle with hunger: death or freedom. In fact, to exact his freedom he went through several hunger strikes, including two particularly long ones. In early 2012, he refused food for 66 days. After he was freed and re-arrested, he endured another 56 days of hunger. His death, as in the cases of Al Qeeq and Allan, was declared imminent. He was finally freed in July 2015.
When we asked him what compelled him to follow that dangerous path twice, his answer was instant: Unlawful and “repeated arrests, the savagery of the way I was arrested, the brutality of the interrogation and finally the prolonged administrative detention” — without trial.
Al Qeeq embarked on his hunger strike on November 24, only three days after he was detained, also citing torture and ill-treatment. Aside from being thrown into a legal black hole, with no due processes, and held based on “secret evidence”, torture is often cited as an overriding reason for the striking Palestinians.
So, what follows a prisoner’s declaration of a hunger strike?
“Almost instantly, a hunger striker is thrown into solitary confinement, denied access to a mattress and blanket and other basic necessities,” said Allan. “Only after six weeks or so, do Israeli prison authorities agree to talk to lawyers representing hunger strikers to discuss various proposals. But within that period of time, the prisoner is left entirely unaided, separated from the other prisoners and subjected to an uninterrupted campaign of intimidation and threats. Mental torture is far worse than hunger.”
What is equally comparable to the pangs of hunger and mental deterioration is what happens to the prisoner’s body in the process of extreme deprivation and in some cases, as in the case of Al Qeeq refusal to receive medical treatment as well.
A freed hunger striker, Ayman Sharawneh, originally from Dura, Hebron, but who has been deported to Gaza, spoke about the gradual collapse of one’s body. He went on hunger strike on July 1, 2012, and suspended it on March 17 the following year. He said: “I started to lose my hair, suffered from constant nausea, sharp pain in my guts, threw up … I had an excruciating headache and then I began to suffer from fissures all over my skin and body.”
The decade or more that Sharawneh had spent in an Israeli prison, and months of hunger strike, had taken a toll on his body, which developed permanent ailments, notwithstanding kidney problems.
Was it worth it? Those who were freed insist that it was the best choice, considering the hopeless detention conditions and the unfair Israeli judicial system. But, Adnan does not see hunger strike as a personal strategy for limited personal gains.
“Mohammad Al Qeeq is not striking for himself,” said Adnan. “He is striking on behalf of all the prisoners,” whose number is estimated by prisoners’ rights group Addameer at nearly 7,000, among whom 670 are held under administrative detention.
According to Adnan, the issue of hunger strikes should not be seen as a battle within Israeli jails, but as part and parcel of the Palestinian people’s fight against military occupation.
The list of well-known Palestinian hunger strikers exceeds Al Qeeq, Adnan, Allan, Sharawneh and Shalabi, and includes many others, not forgetting Samir Issawi, Mahmoud Sarsak, Thaer Halahleh and Bilal Thiab. But what all of these former hunger strikers seem to have in common is their insistence that their battles were never concerned with the freedom of individuals only, but with that of an entire group of desperate, oppressed and outraged people.