Palestinian Prisoners Hope to Use Rare Collective Action to Force Israeli Concessions

Hunger strikes are Palestinian prisoners' most important weapon for achieving improvements in their conditions. But they have generally used it sparingly so as not to dull its impact

Palestinians take part in a protest in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem April 17, 2017.
AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

The obstacles faced by the Palestinian prisoners’ movement in recent years cast doubt on their ability to maintain a mass hunger strike that would force Israeli concessions. This is the view not just of the Israel Prison Service, but also of representatives of the prisoners themselves and of ordinary Palestinians.

Over the past decade, the tension between Hamas and Fatah prisoners has undermined the prisoners’ ability to organize collective action. This tension stems primarily from Hamas-Fatah political rivalry, but is exacerbated by Fatah prisoners' enjoyment of significantly better conditions: They can spend up to 1,300 shekels ($350) a month in the canteen, compared to 700 shekels for Hamas prisoners, and get family visits once every two weeks, compared to once every three months for Hamas prisoners. Today, some prisoners say, these tensions are worse than ever.

Moreover, today’s prisoners include many lone-wolf terrorists unaffiliated with any organization, who are therefore hard for the prisoners’ leadership to control. Many others are affiliated with ultra-radical jihadist organizations like ISIS, and they aren’t viewed by the majority as partners in the war against the occupation; rather, they are viewed as internal enemies.

Finally, there are tensions over Marwan Barghouti’s attempt to position himself as leader of the strike. Until now, other prisoners haven’t viewed him as a leader despite his popularity in the Palestinian street, and some prisoners suspect him of seeking to exploit the strike to further his own political ambitions.

The result of all this is that even the most optimistic prisoners don’t expect the strike to produce major achievements. And the Prison Service is striking back: On Tuesday, it announced that it wouldn’t give out medical information about the strikers’ condition or let them meet with their lawyers unless they have an upcoming court date.

AP

Palestinians arrested for anti-Israel activity have successfully positioned themselves for decades as a group distinct from ordinary criminals. They are denied certain privileges given other criminals, like the right to make phone calls, get an education, enjoy conjugal visits or apply for parole. And regardless of their organizational affiliation, they are viewed by Palestinian society as political prisoners.

Hunger strikes are their most important weapon for achieving improvements in their prison conditions. But they have generally used this weapon sparingly so as not to dull its impact on the Palestinian public, because massive public support is critical to the strikes’ success.

Their first significant hunger strike took place in 1969. Their demands then were writing supplies, not having to say “yes sir” to wardens, more food, longer exercise periods and being able to congregate together during those periods. The strike lasted 11 days and achieved nothing; many of the strikers were put in solitary confinement. But another strike with similar demands later that year won concessions on the first two issues.

Despite the limited success of the first two strikes, they were instrumental in forging these prisoners, known in Israeli parlance as security prisoners, into a cohesive group capable of collective action. Over the years, this awareness gradually coalesced into an organized prisoners’ movement.

In 1972, security prisoners staged a hunger strike to demand that they be recognized as prisoners of war and cease having to work in prison industries. The latter demand was granted, as were other improvements in their living conditions.

The main demands of the hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners.
ABBAS MOMANI/AFP

In 1977, another strike over prison conditions won additional concessions, as did a subsequent strike in 1980. In the latter strike, three prisoners died.

In 1992, during the secret talks that resulted in the Oslo Accords, security prisoners staged an 18-day hunger strike to demand their release as part of any deal. The strike, which was coordinated with the heads of the various Palestinian factions, led to riots in the occupied territories. 

Another hunger strike was held in 1999, while U.S. President Bill Clinton was visiting.

But the following year, the second intifada erupted, prompting Israel to change its attitude toward protests by security prisoners.

Thus in 2004, a 19-day hunger strike over living conditions resulted in no concessions whatsoever. Israel refused to negotiate with either the strikers or their representatives outside the prisons. The Palestinian public, battered by the second intifada, declined to turn out for mass protests. Many prisoners were put into isolation, and overall prison conditions actually worsened.

Support of hunger strikers in advance of US President Clinton's visit to Gaza in 1998.
Alex Levac

Attorney Abeer Baker, who has represented Palestinian security prisoners for years, defined that strike as “a major turning point in the lives of the Palestinian prisoners.” Morale plummeted, and so did motivation to stage further protests.

Then, in 2006, armed clashes between Hamas and Fatah began, culminating in Hamas’ bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, in which many Fatah members were killed. That caused a schism among the prisoners, making it harder to agree on collective action.

This, combined with the failure of the 2004 strike, caused some prisoners to give up on collective action and resort to individual hunger strikes instead. Most individual strikers weren’t convicted prisoners, but people being held without trial, and they struck primarily to demand their own release.

In 2012, about 2,000 prisoners joined a hunger strike started by one such detainee. This was the first attempt in eight years to revive the hunger strike as a collective tool for obtaining better prison conditions. The prisoners demanded the restoration of privileges canceled after Hamas kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006.

After 28 days, a deal was reached. The security prisoners pledged to refrain from any support for terrorist activity, while Israel agreed to return those held in isolation to regular wards and allow visits by first-degree relatives. But despite these achievements, the strike failed to restore the status and power of the organized prisoners’ movement.

Palestinians chant anti Israel slogans during a march in Gaza city, Sunday, July 6, 2003. About 1,200 people, mainly relatives of detainees in Israeli jails, took to the streets of Gaza city to call for the release of a family members.
AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

Since then, the battle over prison conditions has largely moved to the courts. The Palestinian Authority funds these court battles. But the outcomes are determined by judges rather than by hunger strikers.