On April 17, over 1,500 Palestinian prisoners, out of a total of 6,500 in Israeli prisons, began an open hunger strike demanding better conditions.
Palestinian prisoners have attempted to safeguard their most basic rights within the prisons, some of which they have acquired through years of struggles and sacrifice in various forms.
Among the most prominent methods used as leverage against the authorities is hunger striking, sometimes for weeks, until they are granted their demands. History has recorded the hunger strike in Ashkelon prison in 1976, which lasted for 45 days, the strike of Nafha Prison in 1980 for 33 days, the strike of 3,000 prisoners in Junaid Prison for 20 days, the strike in 1992 which saw the participation of 7,000 prisoners for 22 days, the strike in 2012 with 1,500 prisoners, and the 2014 strike that lasted for 63 days.
Thus, it is worth reviewing the different strategies involved in such strikes, and the responses elicited from the Israeli authorities.
Since the first day of the strike this year, the prison administration has carried out daily incursions to search prisoners after they are stripped. They confiscate salt, provide food to prisoners despite their strike, confiscate extra clothes and personal possessions, allowing prisoners to keep only the clothes on their backs. Prisoners have been stripped of almost all their rights, such as visitation rights and recreational time during the day.
Former prisoner Jihad Abu Sbeih, 21, from the Jalazone refugee camp in Ramallah, spent one year in Israeli prisons and was released from captivity on the 10th day of the current strike. He was one of the prisoners on strike.
Abu Sbeih tells Raseef22 that on the first day of the strike, prisoners collected all the canned foods and handed them over to the prison administration. On the second day, the administration moved them from their wing to another, searched them, and sent them back to their original cells.
"They sent us back separately, after strip searching us," he says.
Thus, he says, the prison administration began to punish the prisoners for their strike.
Upon returning to the old wing, the prisoners did not find any of their belongings. Shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes, mirrors, and even pillows had been confiscated.The prisoners found only one mattress and one cover each.
Despite the confiscation of their belongings, the prison administration continued to conduct daily searches. They dealt aggressively with prisoners on strike. They searched prisoners intimately, and told them to take their clothes off in a demeaning manner, according to Abu Sbeih.
The striking prisoner must endure the provocation of the prison administration to avoid penalization, such as solitary confinement or beating. “One of the prisoners in my ward couldn’t take it and responded to provocation. He was sent to solitary confinement for three days, before they transferred him to another prison,” Abu Sbeih says.
Former prisoner Abdul Rahman Ashtiyeh, 32, from Salem village in the Nablus district, has had several experiences in hunger strikes during his multiple detention periods over the past years. He participated in a general hunger strike in 2004, another in 2012 for 28 days, followed by a third in 2014, for 63 days.
He recalls the 2012 strike, noting that it was very similar to the current strike, with regards to both the demands and the number of prisoners partaking in it. “The prison authority at the time could not comprehend the idea that more than 1,500 prisoners went into a mass hunger strike. They expected the strike to break soon, but were surprised to find that the strikers were committed," he tells Raseef22.
Since the start of the general strike in 2012, prisoners were separated and held in different wards. The prison wardens dealt with them in a condescending manner. Moreover, all their belongings were confiscated, and each prisoner was allowed just one small blanket, despite the cold weather at the time.
Ashtiyeh explains that all the measures taken by the prison administration during the current strike, as outlined by Abu Sbeih, were exercised against all prisoners during the previous strikes, whether collective or individual.
Over 1,500 Palestinian prisoners have been on hunger strike since April 17, demanding their basic rights.
For Palestinian prisoners, hunger striking is often the only language that their captors will respond to.
Water and Salt
Though the prisoners were able to maintain their strikes for long periods of time, they would not have survived without ingesting small amounts of water, and salt, which protects their bowels from putrefaction.
Abu Sbeih says prisoners kept salt in their cells, which is likely why the guards searched the cells everyday.
On a daily basis, prisoners would take a little salt and put it on their tongues, then drink some water to keep their bodies functioning for as long as possible.
For the first five days of the hunger strike, the prisoner’s body becomes exhausted, developing severe headaches, stomach pains, slow heartbeats, dizziness, and nausea. Prisoners will often vomit the remaining food left in their systems.
Their health conditions continue to deteriorate thereon, especially among prisoners suffering from chronic diseases, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular problems. Many of them faint, forcing other prisoners to create a commotion in order to receive medical attention.
Abu Sbeih says they would often request a doctor, but the authorities would send a nurse instead, who was not trained to deal with the patient. “The nurses often refused to go into the cell, and so we had to place the striker by the cell door and extend his hand through the opening in the door so that the nurse could take his heartbeat through the tips of his fingers. The nurse would respond that there was nothing wrong with him,” he says.
At times, the prison administration would take one of the prisoners to the clinic to examine him. There, Abu Sbeih says that they would place some food in front of him, and say: “If you don’t eat, you will die. Nothing will alleviate your pain but food.”
Between 15 and 20 days into the hunger strike, the strikers’ conditions sharply deteriorate, forcing the prison authorities to administer supplements to the prisoners. “These do not constitute food, but rather a method to maintain basic bodily functions and prevent death. Yet, some prisoners even refused to take those,” he says
It does not end there. If the prisoners continue their strike beyond this point, they are taken to hospitals, at some point between 21 and 28 days from the beginning of the strike.
As the number of prisoners on strike continued to climb in 2012, the prison administration was forced to approve their demands on the 28th day, for fear of having to transfer 1,500 prisoners to hospitals.
Striking as a Method to Secure Demands
Ashtiyeh believes that hunger strikes are among the few methods whereby prisoners can achieve some of their demands, by putting their lives at risk, in light of the negligence on the part of the prison authorities.
"No doubt striking is a risk, but this is the only language understood by the occupier that forces them to grant prisoners their rights," he contends.
He points out that the prisoners sentenced to life know that they will not be released if they go on hunger strike, “but they are also cognizant of the fact that a strike can give them a semi-dignified life in prison.”
The demands currently being sought were promised long ago, but the prison administration continues to procrastinate and delay their fulfilment. Among their list of demands are such basics as cutlery during meals and washing lines, yet their only method for achieving them was to hunger strike.
Abu Sbeih explains that years ago, before he was detained, the prisoners would negotiate with the prison authorities. In each session, promises were made, but the administration would institute few to none of them.
Signals of Negotiations
The media committee representing the strikers declared on the 14th day of the strike that there were signs of potential upcoming negotiations between the prison authority and the strikers. However, the administration has refused to partake in negotiations in the presence of the strike leader, senior Fatah movement leader Marwan Barghouthi.
Commenting on this, head of the Palestinian Prisoners Club, Kadoura Faris, said: “The occupation authorities must deal directly with the leader of the strike, Marwan Barghouthi, to engage the rest of the committees in the negotiations, until a solution is reached that guarantees the declared rights on demand.”