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No Justice, No Dignity, No Food

Linda Fawaz |
April 10, 2013 | 10:21 p.m. PDT


Imagine going 250 days without food. It’s painful, it’s exhausting and it’s frightening.

Palestinian prisoners can protest their detention in very few ways, one of which is refusing to eat. (Grassroots Al Quds Network, Creative Commons)
Palestinian prisoners can protest their detention in very few ways, one of which is refusing to eat. (Grassroots Al Quds Network, Creative Commons)

Palestinians fighting for self-determination often draw inspiration from the Northern Irish, feeling they share a common struggle. The Irish and Palestinians have engaged in many similar tactics to resist political oppression, including hunger strikes. The prisoner hunger strikes in Northern Ireland are some of the most famous in history.

In 1980, a strike yielded many of the prisoners' demands. The second began in 1981 when it became clear that these demands had not been implemented. This strike resulted in the death of ten prisoners—including Bobby Sands, who had recently been elected to British Parliament—followed by rioting in the streets of Belfast and other areas in Northern Ireland.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher expressed no remorse, calling the strike voluntary suicide. The whole affair scarred Thatcher's reputation and prompted prison guards to treat prisoners with greater respect.

At last count, there were over 4,700 Palestinian prisoners—referred to as “security prisoners”—in Israeli jails. At least a couple hundred of them are political prisoners held in indefinite detention, without being charged or knowing the reason for their arrest. Before the 2011 prisoner exchange, there were over a thousand. These men, women and children are subject to extensions of this administrative detainment without judicial procedure, and conviction with secret evidence that they and their lawyers have no access to.

Although indefinite detention is universally and internationally condemned as inhumane and illegal, Palestinian prisoners have little access to the law and can protest their detainment in very few ways, one of which is refusing to eat.

Currently, detainees are protesting the lack of judicial transparency as well as the conditions of their detainment, including psychological and physical torture. Over the last year, several Palestinian prisoners have participated in a group hunger strike. They have invited death over indignity.

"In order for a hunger strike to succeed, the outside world must learn of it,” Nelson Mandela once said. “Otherwise prisoners will simply starve themselves to death and no one will know."

The hunger strikes in Israeli prisons over the last year, in which thousands have participated, have drawn considerable international media attention and have put pressure on the Israeli government. As we have seen twice recently, the death of a Palestinian held in Israeli jails is seen as a crime at the hands of an oppressor, and civil unrest becomes an issue that both the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority must reckon with. Following the recent death of an older prisoner diagnosed with cancer, Maysara Abu Hamdiyeh, 4,600 Palestinian prisoners protested with a three-day hunger strike.

In December 2011, Khader Adnan was arrested in the middle of the night and began a hunger strike the next day to protest the conditions of administrative detention. After 66 days, when still no charges had been filed, Egyptian diplomatic intervention helped the Israeli authorities and Adnan’s lawyer to reach a deal that ended the strike.

Mahmoud Sarsak began a strike following Adnan after being held under administrative detention for three years with no charge or trial. After about two months on hunger strike and losing half of his weight, a deal was struck for him and several other prisoners to end their strike.

Samer al-Issawi, 33, is currently in an Israeli jail and has been on strike for more than 250 days. He was released in 2011 in the prisoner exchange and re-arrested in 2012 for violating his release by leaving Jerusalem and entering the West Bank. He has been warned for months that he is at extreme risk of death, but has continued the hunger strike. He is now refusing water and nutritional supplements after the best offer has been release with deportation to Gaza.

In addition, at least 40 prisoners in Guantanamo Bay—the notorious institution in Cuba where most of the 166 prisoners are indefinitely detained by the U.S. without charge or trial—have also began a hunger strike to protest prolonged detainment, invasive cell searches and physical and psychological torture. Lawyers of the detainees claim participation in the strike, which began in February 2013, has spread to at least 130 inmates. In 2005, 130 of about 500 detainees participated in a group hunger strike.

Though their hunger strike is unlikely to get these prisoners sympathy from Americans, the media attention has reminded people that the prisoners are still there—despite at least half of them being cleared for release in 2009—and that Guantanamo is still open five years after Obama's pledge to close it.

Keeping in mind the words of Mandela, the Guantanamo prisoners' hunger strike was denied and its scale downplayed early on by U.S. authorities, posing a serious challenge for the secluded prisoners. They have relied on their lawyers to get the word out and, still, the American media has not paid much attention to the strike.

These situations create several ethical dilemmas. For instance, prisoner mistreatment is very easy to hide until hunger strikes or investigations reveal such crimes. Hunger strikes are, in effect, one of the only options and are often successful in raising awareness and achieving prisoner demands. Yet it is easy to see how pressure and criticism on the one hand, and government policy on the other, interjects prison authorities and doctors into the conflict, which may ultimately result in loss of life after prolonged suffering.

At the moment, as has been a response in the past to hunger strikes in Israel and other places, some of the strikers in Guantanamo are being force-fed through a tube.

Here, the role of doctors is even more controversial. Their oath as servants to humanity requires doctors to do no harm, while respecting the wishes of the patient. The World Medical Association adopted a Declaration on Hunger Strikers, which outlines principals protecting prisoner autonomy and preventing maltreatment or coercion. Doctors working in Guantanamo Bay are forbidden from abiding by the principals of the very organization that represents them.

The administration claims to be protecting the safety and welfare of the prisoners by disallowing them to go on hunger strike. Clearly the welfare of the prisoners would be to release those that have been cleared for release and to charge the rest with a crime.

In Guantanamo, Israel and Northern Ireland, the prisoners on hunger strike share one thing in common: their arrest and detainment—in some cases unlawful—is due to political activity.

The imprisonment of politically active Palestinian resistance allows the Israeli government to evade responsibility, accountability and internal or external pressure—until a hunger strike. Thus, where there may be political motivation for the arrest of say, Palestinians in Israel or Palestine, one must take critical stance. One must wonder what causes these prisoners to resort to life-threatening protest in order to seek justice or at least make their voices heard.


Reach Contributor Lind Fawaz here.



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