“I will refuse food for as long as possible, so that I feel close to my son in the pain that he suffers,” says Raja’ Hamdan Abu Sakha. Her son, Mohammed, is now one of approximately 1,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails who are on mass hunger strike.
The strike has been called in an attempt to win concessions from the Israeli authorities over their use of detention without trial and solitary confinement. The prisoners are also asking for more frequent family visits, a payphone in every prison wing, and better medical care.
Mohammed Abu Sakha is one of those Palestinians held without charge or trial. Imprisoned now for 16 months, his mother has only been able to visit seven times due to difficulties in obtaining the necessary permits to enter Israel. His father has only received a permit twice, she said.
“I want all prisoners released - and at least I want them to be treated well during the strike. It’s enough that they’re confined between four walls,” Abu Sakha says when asked what her demands are.
“We agree with all the demands made by the prisoners, but detention without charge or trial is especially important,” explains Laith Abu Zeyad, the International Advocacy Officer for prisoners’ rights group Addameer. “Its end must be a priority for prisoners to push for.”
The Israel Prison Service told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that they do not negotiate with prisoners, and that they were moving some prisoners to solitary confinement in an attempt to break the strike. Abu Sakha said that she was now forbidden from visiting her son as he was on strike.
“More punishment is possible,” Abu Zeyad says, “and we’re worried about the possibility prisoners may be force-fed.” At least three prisoners died after being force-fed between the years of 1967 and 1980. No Palestinian prisoner has been force-fed in recent years, but the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, passed a law allowing the practice in 2015.
Basil Farraj, a Palestinian policy analyst, said that the issue of Palestinian prisoners was important to many in Palestinian society because their “struggle and current imprisonment is central to the broader Palestinian struggle for justice and liberation. Detention is an Israeli policy that attempts to suppress any forms of Palestinian resistance.”
According to Addameer, there are currently 6300 prisoners in Israeli prisons that the Palestinians say are there for “political” reasons. The Israelis term them “security” prisoners. 500 of those are being held without charge or trial.
The strike was organized by Marwan Barghouti, a leader in the Fatah movement who is serving five life sentences for murder and membership in a “terrorist organization”. Barghouti refused to offer a defence at his trial because he did not recognize the court’s legitimacy.
“Hunger striking is the most peaceful form of resistance available,” he wrote. “It inflicts pain solely on those who participate and on their loved ones, in the hopes that their empty stomachs and their sacrifice will help the message resonate beyond the confines of their dark cells.”
The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, criticized the new York Times for publishing the article. He also said that the prisoners are “murderers and terrorists. We will never lose our sense of clarity because we are on the side of justice and they are on the side that is neither just nor moral.”
Human rights groups have long criticized the Israeli authorities for what they say are numerous breaches of international law in the way Palestinian prisoners are treated.
Farraj said that Palestinian prisoners resorted to hunger strikes when they had no other way of obtaining concessions from the Israelis. “None of these demands are "asking for too much." In fact, Palestinian prisoners are always asking for their basic rights which they are continuously denied: for instance, normal communication with their families and rights to dignified family visits.”
Hunger strikes can lead to serious illness, lasting physical damage, and even death. Mohammed Abu Sakha’s mother, Raja’ said that of course she was worried about her son.
“He loves to eat. It’s a sad thing for me that he is refusing food. Although I realise my son is strong, and bears great responsibility, I’m in a constant state of anxiety.”
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