Analysis |

For Palestinian Prisoners in Israel, Hunger Strikes Have Become a Winning Strategy

Samer Issawi's successful hunger strike has not only gained him an early release but has put the plight of Palestinians in Israeli prisons back in the headlines.

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

The agreement reached late Monday night, under which Israel committed to release a hunger-striking Palestinian administrative detainee in eight months, strengthens the new strategy that has been adopted by Palestinian prisoners fighting their incarceration and boosts the status of nonviolent resistance.

Palestinian prisoner Samer Issawi, who was liable to be sent back to prison for 26 years for allegedly violating the terms of his October 2011 release as one of the Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for Gilad Shalit, obtained a deal that no state or other entity could have obtained for him. He did this by staging a lengthy, widely publicized hunger strike and having his mother and sister conduct a public campaign, assisted by the Palestinian Prisoners Society and human rights groups.

Issawi essentially gave Israel two alternatives: An early release, or have him die behind bars. His death would likely have set off massive demonstrations in the West Bank and positioned Israel in a face-off against international public opinion, which supported Issawi and his struggle.

Issawi thus joins a line of prisoners who launched hunger strikes against their administrative detention and succeeded in getting themselves released after short periods by challenging the security establishment and the military justice system.

The first to use this strategy was Khader Adnan, an Islamic Jihad activist from Jenin, arrested in December 2011. He staged a two-month hunger strike, which led to his release when his administrative detention order expired in April 2012.

He was followed by Ayman Sharawna, a resident of Dura near Hebron, who had also been released in the Shalit deal and was rearrested in January 2012. Sharawna staged a hunger strike for 260 days that ended with his release in a deal that keeps him in Gaza for 10 years. Thaer Halahla also was on hunger strike for 76 days before he was released last year, only to be rearrested earlier this month.

This type of protest, which is likely to continue in the future, and has been dubbed “the empty stomach campaign,” has helped put the plight of the Palestinian prisoner back in the headlines and into the consciousness of the Palestinian, Arab, and Israeli publics. Thanks to these protests, the prisoner issue was raised during U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah last month.

The release of Palestinian prisoners tops the list of Palestinian conditions for returning to the negotiating table with Israel. Yet the bottom line is that neither the United States, nor the Arab League, nor Egypt, which brokered the Shalit deal, nor the Palestinian Authority has been able to achieve anything significant for Palestinian prisoners, even those defined as “long-term” prisoners who were convicted and imprisoned before the 1993 Oslo Accords.

The PA talks a lot about a previous commitment by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to release a large number of prisoners as a gesture to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, but this commitment apparently evaporated once Olmert left office. As of now, there is no Israeli commitment to release anyone.

Palestinians see this situation as leaving them with two options: One is to kidnap Israel Defense Forces soldiers and use them as bargaining chips to secure prisoner releases, as was done in the case of Shalit, a move that could have devastating consequences for both Israel and the PA and Gaza. The second is for the prisoners themselves to conduct hunger strikes and public campaigns that put the Israeli justice system in an uncomfortable position.

Only Israel has a third option: To gradually release prisoners by category, or through negotiating with the PA. Such a move could be part of a formula for returning to the negotiating table that would also avoid the violent scenarios liable to result from the other options. The ball is in the Israeli government’s court; it can choose between an own goal, or a goal that gives it the edge.

A Palestinian demonstrator shouts slogans holding a placard featuring Samer Issawi during a protest outside Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque in April. Credit: AFP
Palestinian hunger striker Samer Issawi's case reached the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court in 2012.Credit: Oren Nachshon

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