Opinion

The Palestinian Hunger Strike Aims Beyond the Jailhouses

The hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners is a means of liberation from the destructive effect of the multiple prison cells on the outside

Demonstrators take part in a rally in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails, in Ramallah, April 17. 2017.
MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS

The Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike, initiated and being led by Marwan Barghouti, has refreshing subversive potential, and not necessarily against the Israel Prison Service. As a number of prisoners’ representatives outside the prisons say, it’s not an adversarial or ideological strike. It’s about basic human rights that even prisoners, even prisoners who are members of the other nation, deserve.

Give them a public phone, and be done with the prison guards who get big money for smuggling in cellphones. Let them meet with their families without the continuous agony-strewn path to a once-per-year permit. Lengthen the visits and see what a positive impact that will have on the atmosphere. What the prisoners are trying to say to the Israel Prison Service and the Israeli public is that both sides have an interest in the prisons maintaining a level of decency.

The real subversiveness is internal. One can see in the strike an attempt to get the Palestinians to shake off their fatalism and inaction in light of Israel’s ever more powerful malevolence and rouse their quarreling leaders out of their complacency with the status quo and their delusion of sovereignty.

This is no simple thing in the age of privatization. What are the individual hunger strikes if not privatization of the struggle? What are the stabbings, the knife-brandishing and the car ramming attacks if not the privatization of a revolt (or using it to flee personal and family problems and frustrations, and even to die)? The individual hunger strikes of administrative detainees were a burden on the prisoners’ support organizations, but those groups were swept up in natural concern for the detainees' health, and they invested in the strikes a great deal of time and talk that went nowhere. The too-frequent use of individual hunger strikes eroded them completely as a tool for recruitment, impact or change.

The imprisoning of Palestinians is Israel’s default policy. But beyond the regular prisons, Israel has created and continues to create all kinds of other means of imprisoning Palestinians. That, in the end, is the summary description of the real Oslo process, not the one reflected in high-flown promises. Clusters and clusters of jailhouses in our midst, and all of us – Jewish Israelis – are the wardens. Thus the experience of imprisonment, whether in a formal prison or another kind, is shared by all Palestinians.

But with the shattering of Palestinians’ space – using tried-and-true colonialist tricks that Israel upgraded and polished, and to which it has added tons of gall – it has created dozens of different mechanisms of imprisonment, dozens of geo-social units with varying levels of absence of freedom and suffocation. The pinnacle is of course in Gaza, where two million people are serving life sentences. But in the other parts of the country as well (including sovereign Israel), the walls in which Palestinians are imprisoned vary: bureaucratic rules that are constantly changing, rampant discrimination, Area C, arrogance, violent settlers, a ban on travel through the Allenby Bridge, humiliation at Ben-Gurion Airport, etc.

This shattering into dozens of units of incarceration has created a different consciousness among those imprisoned in each of them, depending on the level of suffocation and detention. Those whose level of detention is lower (freedom to travel abroad but not to Jerusalem, only half the land of their village was stolen, the barbed wire and army base are a kilometer from their house instead of half a kilometer) experience the Israeli warden differently than a woman who lives in the Hebron neighborhood of Tel Rumeida, who is cut off from the world 300 meters from her house. The official leadership, as it happens, experiences the mildest degree of detention. The level of urgency to change the situation differs from one jail to another.

The hunger strike is a means of liberation from the destructive effect of the multiple prison cells on the outside. Its challenge is to build a collective of prisoners as a body that sets the Palestinian agenda, a body viewing the Palestinians on the outside as a dismembered, shattered collective that must be reunited.