Having spent the last 15 years in an Israeli prison, former Palestinian member of parliament and secretary general of Fatah — the largest political faction in the Palestine Liberation Organisation — 57-year-old Marwan Barghouti has been a witness to and victim of Israel’s ill-treatment and abuse of Palestinian prisoners.
On Monday, 17 April, which is Palestinian Prisoners Day, he led and began an open-ended hunger strike together with more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
The announcement was made in an op-ed he published in The New York Times where Barghouti explained that he had no choice but to resist these abuses by going on a hunger strike in the hope that with so many prisoners following suit, their “message will resonate beyond the confines of their dark cells”.
By Monday noon, almost every Palestinian town in the West Bank and Gaza saw solidarity marches drawing tens of thousands, including in Bethlehem, Ramallah, Hebron, Jenin, Qalqilya and Tulkarem. In eastern Bethlehem, two protesters were injured by rubber bullet during clashes between demonstrators and the Israeli occupation forces, according to the Red Crescent.
Solidarity functions expanded as they continued Tuesday as Al-Ahram Weekly was going to press. According to the Prisoners Club NGO, 13 protesters were arrested by the Israeli army in the West Bank.
Palestinian factions from across the political spectrum, including Hamas, announced their support and solidarity with the hunger strike. Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbass also gave his support to the action.
In a bid do contain and abort the mass hunger strike, Israeli prison authorities announced a state of emergency and isolated its leaders Barghouti and Kareem Younis, 54 (who, having been held by Israel for the past 35 years, is the longest serving prisoner in Palestine), by moving them and others to solitary confinement in different prisons.
Thirty-five hunger strikers in Nafha Prison were also moved to different wards.
Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan ruled out negotiations with the prisoners and threatened to move hunger strikers to a prison in the Negev desert. He claimed that the strike was over an internal Palestinian power play and not about prison conditions.
Prison authorities notified the Red Crescent Tuesday that family visits to inmates on hunger strike were cancelled as a punitive measure. Hunger strikers were also denied access to their lawyers.
The hunger strike movement listed 13 demands, including: To improve communication of prisoners with visitors; improve health conditions; access to books, newspapers, clothes and food brought to prisoners during visits; ending the policy of solitary confinement and administrative detention; putting prison kitchens under the supervision of the prisoners; installing air conditioners in warm prisons and permitting prisoners to officially apply for diplomas and university degrees.
It’s the 22nd Palestinian prisoners hunger strike since 1969, testifying to the long history of suffering under Israeli occupation, where little has changed in 48 years during which 210 strikers perished. The last hunger strike in 2014 lasted 63 days.
There are 6,500 Palestinian prisoners in 23 Israeli jails including 57 women, 300 children and 12 MPs. Activists and Palestinian rights groups say that Israel has incarcerated one million Palestinians since the occupation began in 1948.
A recent statement by Amnesty International described Israel’s policy of depriving inmates of regular family visits, sometimes for years, as cruel and “a blatant violation of international law.”
Under international humanitarian law, detainees from occupied territories must be detained in the occupied territory, not in the territory of the occupying power. But Israel built most its prisons inside within its borders where all Palestinian inmates are incarcerated.
At least 500 people are held without charge or trial in administrative detention, according to Amnesty. The Palestinian Prisoners’ Affairs Commission Spokesperson Hassan Abed Rabbo said at least 1,000 prisoners are prohibited from receiving family visits on “security grounds”. Prior to the hunger strike, 15-20 prisoners were already held in solitary confinement.
According to Israeli Prison Service regulations, all prisoners are entitled to family visits once every two weeks. But in practice, because Palestinians from the occupied Palestinian territories must apply for permits to enter Israel, they can visit much less frequently. The Israeli Prison Service regulations also allow authorities to rescind a prisoner’s right to family visits on security grounds.
Gaza prisoners continue to be most affected by these restrictions as Israeli occupation forces grant permits to families from the Strip only once every two months.
In his New York Times op-ed, Barghouti who is serving five life sentences for his role in the Palestinian Intifada, described his earliest experience in Israeli prisons.
“I was only 15 when I was first imprisoned. I was barely 18 when an Israeli interrogator forced me to spread my legs while I stood naked in the interrogation room, before hitting my genitals. I passed out from the pain, and the resulting fall left an everlasting scar on my forehead,” he wrote. The interrogator mocked him afterwards, “saying that I would never procreate because people like me give birth only to terrorists and murderers”.
Although Barghouti might never step out of prison in his lifetime, the now father of four enjoys wide popularity in Palestine and is often viewed as a possible future president for Palestinians.
By spearheading the hunger strike, he is once again the focus of attention in Palestine at a time when both the main rival political factions, Fatah and Hamas, and even PA chairman Abbas, are losing support from their traditional constituencies.
“Among the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians whom Israel has taken captive are children, women, parliamentarians, activists, journalists, human rights defenders, academics, political figures, militants, bystanders, family members of prisoners. And all with one aim: To bury the legitimate aspirations of an entire nation,” he wrote.
“Instead, though, Israel’s prisons have become the cradle of a lasting movement for Palestinian self-determination. This new hunger strike will demonstrate once more that the prisoners’ movement is the compass that guides our struggle, the struggle for Freedom and Dignity, the name we have chosen for this new step in our long walk to freedom.”