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Too Hard to Swallow: Palestinian Hunger Striker Is Dying, and the Whole System Is Complicit

Ilana Hammerman
Ilana Hammerman
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Palestinian prisoner Maher Akhras, who has been on hunger strike for close to 80 days to protest his detention without charge, in Kaplan Hospital, Rehovot, Israel, September 29, 2020.
Palestinian prisoner Maher Akhras, who has been on hunger strike for close to 80 days to protest his detention without charge, in Kaplan Hospital, Rehovot, Israel, September 29, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod
Ilana Hammerman
Ilana Hammerman

“According to the professional literature, he’s in the category of clinical death,” the doctor told me. “Death is coming, it’s just a question of when,” said attorney Ahlam Hadad at the start of her remarks before the High Court of Justice.

The person in the “category of death” is her client, Maher Akhras, 49, from the village of Silat al-Dhahr in the West Bank’s Jenin district. He has been on a hunger strike for nearly 80 days to protest his administrative detention, and now lays dying in Rehovot’s Kaplan Hospital. On October 12, for the second time, the court rejected his petition to be released from the hospital, where he is being held against his will.

I attended the lengthy hearing and in the vast, imposing courtroom my ears strained to take in all the erudite details about the precise legal standing of a person whose days are numbered if he is not immediately released. I have a copy of the protocol and reading it confirmed for me yet again what I already knew when I sat down there: There was no justice here, only a distortion of justice.

Israel's High Court, Jerusalem, February 5, 2020.
Israel's High Court, Jerusalem, February 5, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

And I held out no hope. Not for charity or for a cry that would at last rise heavenward inside or outside the walls of this mighty chamber: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20). For the entire Israeli justice system, military and civilian, which holds the Palestinians in its vice and keeps them trapped in their towns and villages, which dispossesses them of their lands, sends them to rot in jail by the tens of thousands on the basis of laws and regulations that an occupying power has no authority to legislate – the entire system is evil, the embodiment of evil.

But, to quote the poet Meir Wieseltier, how can such a cry come from people “for whom truth in the home is like a dead body in the home”?

The little that was reported in Haaretz about Akhras, who may not be among the living by the time this piece is published, you can read about in Hagar Shezaf’s informative piece “With his administrative detention frozen, Palestinian continues hunger strike in hospital” (Haaretz.com, September 30). Two critical weeks have passed since then.

For me, the man’s tragedy – and may he yet live – serves as an analogy. An analogy to the tragedy and crime that have been ongoing for 53 years with the patronage of the Israeli justice system. People say: He was arrested under administrative detention. But through all of these years, masses of Palestinians have been arrested and placed in administrative detention, without trial. The Shin Bet and the army are the accusers and the arbiters and there’s no knowing about what or why. And still, the defenders of human rights cling to a reality that is entirely false. Administrative detention does not meet the criteria for a court of justice in a democracy, they protest. And I ask: What does a court of justice have to do with the Palestinians, who for decades are born and die under a military regime?

It was said in court that according to classified intelligence information, Makhras is involved in “organizational activity that endangers the area’s security.” I’ve attended dozens of military trials – not only for administrative detainees – where the same assertion has been made, whether the information is classified or unclassified, whether the detainees voluntarily confess to reach a “plea bargain,” or whether the confession is extracted from them by torture. It is all written down and documented, but few Israelis want to know.

Aside from a handful of Israeli women (and no men, as was again the case in court yesterday), the courtrooms are devoid of spectators. And I ask: These rulings, these mass arrests based on “laundry lists” of informers – what do they have to do with regional security? Haven’t hundreds and thousands of people – civilians and soldiers, women and men, old people and children – been killed here throughout all these years? Are the courts and the ridiculous hearings that take place in them about Palestinians’ fates the thing that will put an end to this bloodbath?

Israeli left-wing activists protest for the liberation of Maher al-Akhras in front of Kaplan medical center where he is in Israeli custody in the central city of Rehovot, October 11, 2020.
Israeli left-wing activists protest for the liberation of Maher al-Akhras in front of Kaplan medical center where he is in Israeli custody in the central city of Rehovot, October 11, 2020.Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI - AFP

They assert that the detainee is a member of an “illegal organization.” The same was said about the hunger striker. He denies it and his lawyer tries to prove it. He is not a member of any organization, she says. And I ask: What does legality have to do with the outlawing of hundreds of Palestinian organizations, most of them civilian organizations? They support terror, they incite terror on social media, they say. (See the case of Dareen Tatour and her poem, “Resist, my people.”) They themselves are terrorists, they say – they throw rocks, stab with knives, menace with scissors.

And I ask the most important question of all: What right does the State of Israel, its laws and its courts have to define what terrorism is and what incitement to terrorism is and to differentiate between them and resistance, between them and popular uprising? Not only were its wars and military operations in Lebanon and Gaza – where the majority of the thousands of victims were civilians – wars of terror, but its entire policy in the West Bank is a policy of terror. Because yes, if terror is war against innocent civilians, then collective punishment, appropriation of lands, demolition of houses, schools and entire locales from the Negev and south Mount Hebron to neighborhoods of Jerusalem, the arrest of hundreds of thousands (more than a million people since 1967) and the ongoing denial of human and civil rights under a military administration – are all acts of terror.

Recently Meir Wieseltier’s poem, “Be’emet,” which was written in 1968, was published here and gained a new following when it was put to music by Adam Horovitz. These days, Wieseltier says: “I live within my people. I do not speak from within dreams, I speak from within the reality. … That was the year when the savageness of political lies that derives from coveting of the territories began to grow.”

Palestinian protesters lift placards demanding the release of administrative detainee in Israeli custody Maher Akhras, in the city center of Hebron in the occupied West Bank, October 14, 2020.
Palestinian protesters lift placards demanding the release of administrative detainee in Israeli custody Maher Akhras, in the city center of Hebron in the occupied West Bank, October 14, 2020.Credit: AFP

The next day, what a coincidence, a piece was published here by Shaul Arieli (“The march of folly in the settlements continues,” Haaretz, October 15), who writes in elegant prose about the very same truth. Arieli, a seasoned researcher of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, opens with the news that the prime minister “has ordered the convening of the supreme planning commission of the Civil Administration, with the aim of approving extensive construction” amounting to 5,400 housing units in dozens of locales in the West Bank.

He goes on to offer a meticulous account of how the settlement project has progressed since the signing of the Oslo Accords, concluding that there is truth to the Palestinians’ claim that every Israeli government since Oslo has taken steps to increase the amount of territory annexed to Israel at their expense or, “worse still, to create a reality that will be perceived by the Israeli public as one that does not allow for any two-state solution at a reasonable national price.” He concludes: “The policy of expanding the settlements in Judea and Samaria was and remains hideously costly to the State of Israel with regard to its security, economy and society.”

This is the poet’s truth and the scholar’s truth and it has existed for two generations now. The stench of it may make many people ill, but they don’t know how or don’t dare to do anything more about it. Even lawyers, Jewish and Arab alike, cooperate with the justice system that authorized all of these things – the settlements first and foremost, but also the entire system of discrimination that has been honed over time into a perfect system of apartheid.

A protester holds a poster of Maher Akhras inside a solidarity tent next to the International Committee of the Red Cross building in Gaza City, October 14, 2020.
A protester holds a poster of Maher Akhras inside a solidarity tent next to the International Committee of the Red Cross building in Gaza City, October 14, 2020.Credit: AFP

Nonetheless, these lawyers, who surely view their work (which is quite degrading, it should be said) as defending human rights, continue to argue in the Israeli military and civilian courts for the right of Palestinians to live in their homes and possess their lands and not sit in prison. As if the justice system of a country that has made millions of people subjects of its military rule was meant to protect them. As if the conflict between the two peoples is the business of the Israeli justice system.

Part of the hearing this week concerning Akhras’ case at the highest level of this system was held behind closed doors. Shin Bet and intelligence officials, who are just as much a part of this system, apparently persuaded the justices that the hunger striker who is on the verge of death is a danger to regional security, and therefore they turned down the petition for his release.

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