Palestinian Prisoners’ Strike


Uncertain Victory

By David Kattenburg

The longest hunger strike ever organized by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails ended this past Sunday evening, May 28, both strikers and the Israel government claiming victory.

The Israeli Prison Service, reporting to the Internal Affairs Committee of the Israeli Knesset (parliament), indicated on May 29 that it had neither negotiated with the prisoners nor acceded to any of their demands. Veteran detainee and strike leader Marwan Barghouthi, on the other hand, referred to the 41-day hunger strike as a “turning point.”

Marwan Barghouthi on Ramallah office building

The demands of the “Freedom and Dignity” hunger strikers, announced by Barghouthi in a New York Times op-ed piece on April 16, included more frequent family visits, improved health care conditions, an end to solitary confinement and administration detention (without charge), access to high school completion and open university programs, and other basic services consistent with international human rights law.


The 41-day strike, involving some fifteen hundred detainees, captured the imagination and support of Palestinians up and down the occupied West Bank, but was largely ignored by the international media.

Prisoners’ mothers in strike solidarity tent, Manger Square, Bethlehem

Mainstream media’s take was summed up by Peter Beaumont, Jerusalem correspondent for the Guardian, in its May 27 online edition. “Charges [against the prisoners] range from stone throwing to weapons possession and attacks that killed or wounded Israeli civilians and soldiers,” Beaumont wrote.

In contrast, according to the Palestinian prisoner support and human rights association Addameer, the estimated 6300 Palestinians currently held in Israeli jails are “political prisoners,” five hundred of them without charge or trial, based on secret evidence (“administrative detention”). Thirteen of them are members of the Palestinian Legislative Assembly, and some three hundred are children, says Addameer.

Any Palestinian who belongs to a political organization banned by Israel, or who waves a flag, demonstrates against Israel’s fifty-year occupation or provides support to jailed family members is subject to arrest and detention without ever having thrown a stone, much less attack or kill an Israeli.

‘Freedom Train’, Ramallah

Israel imprisons Palestinians in a network of seventeen facilities located on the west side of the Green Line — i.e. within Israel itself — in violation of the 4th Geneva Convention (1949). Article 76 of the convention states: “Protected persons accused of offences shall be detained in occupied country, and if convicted they shall serve their sentences therein.”

By detaining Palestinian prisoners within its own borders, the Israeli Prison Service effectively denies them access to family members and lawyers, who cannot enter Israel without proper permits that are routinely denied.

“Willfully depriving a prisoner of war or a protected person of the rights or the fair and regular trial prescribed in the Conventions” [e.g. administrative detention] and “unlawful deportation or transfer” are both considered “grave breaches” of this most canonical of international laws. Articles 145-147 of the 4th Geneva Convention oblige “High Contracting Parties” (e.g. Canada, the US, France, Britain, German, etc.) to enact “penal sanctions” against those who commit grave breaches. Sanctions have never been imposed on Israel.

None of these salient points are raised by Peter Beaumont in his May 27 article, nor in an earlier article about the prisoners’ hunger strike.

Manger Square, Bethlehem

Anxious to ingratiate himself with the passionately pro-Israel Trump Administration, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly considered the hunger strike an unwelcome nuisance. Trump and Abbas met in Bethlehem in the strike’s closing days, but did not visit the Church of the Nativity, as visiting US presidents often do. A pro-strike demonstration was taking place on Manger Square at the time.

Abbas, now in the twelfth year of his four-year presidential term, may have also viewed the strike as a challenge to his authority. Strike leader Marwan Barghouthi, jailed in 2002 on murder charges he denied and refused to defend himself against, is considered the most popular political figure in occupied Palestine today, more so than Abbas, according to wisdom.

Courtesy Addameer Prisoner Support & Human Rights Association

Now that the strike has ended, debate rages over who came out on top.

Predictably, strike leaders claim victory. Strikers showed “unprecedent steadfastness” in the face of the Israeli Prison Service’s “Gestapo-style” tactics and Israeli “apartheid regime,” Barghouti wrote in a statement published by the Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network.

Among the concessions Barghouthi claims were won: restoration of the second monthly visit, improved conditions for women and child prisoners, an improved canteen system, and an agreement to formalize dialogue between IPS officials and prisoners’ representatives.

Confronted by brutal Israeli reprisals and disruption tactics, simply holding fast and maintaining unity may have been the strikers’ greatest accomplishment — something Palestinian leaders on the outside, famous for their endless bickering and mutual acrimony, have been unable to do. 

“No oppression has been spared against the strikers, which has contributed to the deterioration of the prisoners’ health through repressive policies and measures against the strikers,” wrote Ahmad Saadat, General Secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in a May 28 statement.

“The different factions of the prisoners’ movement and the atmosphere of division did not prevent the unity of action of all of the national and Islamic factions on the fields of confrontation, as long as the compass of struggle remaind [sic] directed at the primary contradiction with the occupation,” Saadat wrote.

Donald Trump did not get to see this installation on Bethlehem’s Manger Square.

In contrast, Israeli Prison Service official Asher Vaknin insists that it never negotiated with the prisoners, and that the only confirmed ‘concession’ — doubling monthly family visits from one to two — was no concession at all.

“In the past, the second monthly visit was fully funded by the Red Cross, which paid for the buses for the families,” Vaknin told Israel’s Knesset the day after the strike ended. “The Red Cross decided to pull the funding. During the strike, the Palestinian Authority decided to fund the transport of the families to the prisons, thus allowing a second monthly visit, and we informed the prisoners of this. They decided that this would suffice. We did not cancel the second monthly visit, and we did not reinstate it either.”

Vaknin’s report did not soothe MK Oren Hazan (Likud). “If we were to do the right thing, every terrorist would get a bullet to the head. There is enough room underground,” Hazan fulminated.

An apt image. By jailing vast numbers of its occupied subjects, Israel aims to bury them. To “crush their bones” — as Israel’s late great Nobel Peace Prize laureate reportedly said, at the height of the First Intifada. To crush their bones and bury the dust.

Given the colossal number of Palestinians who’ve languished in Israeli dungeons since its conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in June 1967– almost a million; twenty percent of the population of the West Bank and Gaza; forty percent of all males; even more since 1948 (Addameer stats)  — the prison experience has definitely been burned into the Palestinian psyche.

In one sense, Israel’s strategy has rebounded on itself. The most revered of Palestinians, constant fuel for resistance, are its imprisoned husbands, sons, daughters, sisters and brothers (versus Israel’s most cherished brethren — its soldiers and military police).

Still, the prison experience has worked its poison. Countless numbers of Palestinians have emerged from prison, or from their encounters with Israel’s all-pervasive security experience, as collaborators (who could blame them?). Eighty percent of Ramallans are collaborators, an acquaintance told me the other day. These are the people who drive fancy cars, unaccounted for by their employment, he said. A common trope.

The truth behind this claim is less important than the prevalence of its expression. Israel’s aim, says ex-soldier Yehuda Shaul, of the Israeli group Breaking the Silence, is to convince Palestinians that they have no hope. That resistance is futile. That life under the jackboot shall be their lot from now till eternity. 

If Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says it’s his “sacred” duty to cooperate with Israel’s security apparatus, who can say they’re wrong?

For a nuanced analysis of the hunger strike, and background routinely ignored by the mainstream media, listen to this interview with Laith Abu Zeyad, International Advocacy Officer for the Palestinian prisoner rights organization Addameer.


Laith Abu Zeyad, Addameer Prisoner Support & Human Rights Association

All images by David Kattenburg