Which Israeli Cares About Palestinian Hunger Striker Maher Akhras?

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Maher Akhras, an administrative detainee who is on hunger strike, Kaplan Hospital, Rehovot, September 29, 2020.

When a person goes on a hunger strike to demonstrate for something he believes in, he probably believes that the possibility he might die will weigh on the consciences of others. When a person decides to starve himself to death in protest, it’s reasonable to assume he’s doing this to give others the time and opportunity to stop him.

If the person had only wanted to die in protest, he would have committed suicide all at once, not stretch out the suicide over months.

The hunger striker commits suicide in slow motion because he believes that someone will come to his aid and do what’s necessary to stop him from killing himself. The person on the hunger strike believes that someone in this world can’t bear the thought of him dying, and this person will create the change that the hunger striker is demanding in his protest.

On Friday, the Palestinian Maher Akhras ended his hunger strike after 103 days. He had been protesting his detention without trial, and Israel promised not to extend this administrative detention. He was determined to continue until his freedom, or his death, whichever came first.

But to judge by the government’s approach and the response of the High Court of Justice to the petitions to release him, and the meager public response to his detention and slow starving of himself, it seemed for weeks that in the competition over Akhras’ fate, death had the upper hand.

Akhras’ expectation that the well-oiled system of human rights, in Israel and around the world, would act to free him suddenly seemed to me taken from a different world, from a different era. In fact, almost everything related to Akhras’ life sounds like it’s taken from a history book describing the end of the 20th century.

Suddenly Akhras looked to me like someone standing on the other side of a fault that split our continent in two, or more precisely, like someone on the other side of a rupture in time. His demand from humanity that it go out of its way so that he’d agree not to die seemed to me taken from another era.

Where does he think he’s living? Of course, the answer is banal. He’s living under a military dictatorship in the occupied territories, in a parallel legal universe where administrative detention, torture and death are routine. The question, then, is when does he think he’s living?

The slow suffering death of a Palestinian didn’t awaken the Israeli conscience, because the Palestinian is already dead as far as it’s concerned. The living Palestinian is the exception that might awaken Israelis.

Criminals rot in prison and no one cares, but the thought of Bar Refaeli doing time was intolerable. After all, Bar Refaeli in prison is an exception from the profile of the person who sits in prison. The same thing goes for the Palestinians. When they die they do what Palestinians do in the image Israelis have of them.

Akhras would have had a better chance of touching Israelis’ hearts if he dressed up as popcorn and sang on the reality TV show “The Masked Singer.” Just imagine the panel on the show screaming “Who’s that, who’s that?” a second before he takes off the mask, and talk show host Ofira Asayag shouting: “Wow, I can’t believe it! It’s adorable Akhras from Islamic Jihad!”

This of course is a hallucination. And I’m not pretentious enough to provide strategic advice to the administrative prisoner or Palestinian struggle.

It’s only that something has happened. The times have changed. Donald Trump may be the cause, or the result – it’s hard to know which – but without a doubt the vitality of terms such as human rights, human rights groups and UN high commissioner have faded beyond recognition, even if we don’t like it.

Instead of expecting in vain that someone will turn back the wheel of history, there is no choice but to pave new paths of action. Otherwise, the only way to be free will be to die, and all of us – even the Palestinians – want to live.

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