Reflections on the Great Palestinian Prison Hunger Strikes of 2012

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 28 May 2012

Richard Falk – TRANSCEND Media Service

Ché Guevara was once asked what was at the root of his revolutionary commitment. His response, which we should all take some moments to reflect upon, “it is about love.” Reading the words of Khader Adnan (‘Open Letter to the People of the World’) and Thaer Halahleh (‘Letter to my Daughter’), or the comments of Hana Shalabi’s mother and sister, or Bilal Diab’s father, led me to recall Guevara’s illuminating comment. Only those with closed minds can read such words of devotion without feeling that the animating hunger of these Palestinians is for peace and justice, for love and dignity, and that their heroic strikes would have impossible without cherishing life and future freedom for the people of Palestine.

The nature of extreme self-sacrifice, provided it is autonomous and nonviolent, is an inherently spiritual undertaking even when its external appearance is political. For Christians, and others moved to tears by the life of Jesus, the Crucifixion exemplifies this encounter between the political and the spiritual.

We can only marvel at the duplicitous double standards of the media. Without the Internet and Al Jazeera the West, especially the United States, would have rendered invisible these challenges to Israeli abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law. Only the settlement of the strike, and to some extent fear of Palestinian unrest should one of these hunger strikes die while in detention, was deemed somewhat newsworthy by the Western press.

As many have observed, the media treatment of the Chinese dissident, Chen Guangcheng, or the global attention given to the Isreael soldier held captive in Gaza, underscores the media victimization of the Palestinian struggle, and exposes the illegitimacy of an information regime that rests upon such a flagrant disregard for objectivity, taking refuge in ill-disguised double standards: magnifying Israeli grievances, disappearing Palestinian wrongs.

The Israeli media did have a cynical preoccupation with the hunger strikes wavering between worries of seeming to give in to pressure exerted by fears if the strikes continued Third Intifada and the characteristic concern of an oppressor that accommodating grievances would be treated as a show of weakness and an encouragement of further Palestinian resistance activity. For this reason the agreement reached to end the main strike has been sharply criticized by Israeli right-wing politicians.

Israel is not alone in addressing prison hunger strikes in a detached manner that refuses to acknowledge the moral motivation, physical courage and discipline, and the righteousness of the demands for reforms. A 2011 protest hunger strike in a notorious California Pelican Bay State Prison and other prisons around the state led to this monumentally icy reaction from Nancy Kincaid, Director of Communications for California Correctional Health Service: “They have the right to die of starvation if they wish.”  And as the late Kurt Vonnegut so memorably reflected on the terror bombing of Dresden during World War II: “And so it goes.”

The ending of the hunger strikes on the eve of the 64th observance of Nakba Day is above all a protest against the particular reality of these protests against administrative detention, arrest procedures of a police state, and unacceptable prison regulations that include extensive and extended consignment to solitary confinement, taunting of prisoner suffering, denial of family visits (especially for Gaza families), and a variety of forms of inhumane treatment. It also needs to be understood as part of the general Palestinian struggle for protection and rights, above all, the inalienable right of self-determination, which is accorded to every people by virtue of Article 1 of both Human Rights Covenants.

Any agreement reached with Israel should be carefully monitored and scrutinized. It was a disgrace that Israel should have released Hana Shalabi but punitively ‘deported’ her to Gaza where she is required to remain for three years before returning to her family and home in the West Bank village of Burqin.  Without charges to sentence Shalabi to what many have called the world’s largest open air prison is to compound the wrong done by detaining her in the first place, and is an implied admission by Israel that it is a punishment to be required to live in blockaded Gaza.

Throughout this period of hunger strikes that was started by Khader Adnan on the day following his December 17th arrest I and others have taken notice of the IRA strike in the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland in which ten Irish prisoners fasted unto death, including the martyred Irish hero, Bobby Sands. What I have learned of while following the developments in the Palestinian strikes was the earlier celebrated hunger strike of Terrence MacSwiney, the elected lord mayor of county Cork who was arrested, charged, and convicted of his activism in the Irish struggle against British colonial rule.

MacSwiney upon conviction told a stunned court, “I whall be free, alive, or dead, within a month.” He died on October 25, 1920 in the Brixton Prison after an extraordinary 74 day hunger strike, and has been part of the proud tradition of Irish revolutionary iconography ever since. (For a detailed account see Dave Hannigan’s Terrence MacSwiney: The Hunger Strike that Rocked an Empire (Dublin: Obrien Press, 2010)) Unlike the blanket of denial and silence that has accompanied the Palestinian acts of protest, the MacSwiney story “became a worldwide sensation, causing workers to lay down tools on the New York waterfront, sparking riots in Barcelona and mass demonstrations from Buenos Aires to Boston. The international press covered his decline on a daily basis, raising the profile of the cause of Irish Independence to previously unheard-of-heights.” (from back cover material)

Aside from the contrast in media coverage, there is the notable fact that MacSwiney faced charges in an open court, and was allowed to speak in his own defense. Governments that claim to be democracies and respectful of human rights and the rule of law should waste no time in abolishing administrative detention provisions. And if that is not done, at least the pretension of being a constitutional democracy should be abandoned. Is not time that we demanded that ‘power speak truth to the people’!

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Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. He is currently serving his fourth year of a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).

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