It's impossible to determine precisely how many days people can survive without food. The medical history of hunger strikes indicates that healthy people of average weight can expect to lose consciousness on the 55th day of their fast. The data also indicates that hunger strikers can expect to die by day 75.
As these lines are being written, administrative detainees Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahla are approaching the 70th day of their hunger strike. They are reportedly both still conscious but, statistically speaking, they can expect to die any minute.
In addition to Diab and Halahla, six other administrative detainees are also on a hunger strike - one for more than 40 days, and another for nearly 60. The oldest of them, a 72-year-old man, has been refusing to eat for three weeks. What they are all demanding is their freedom. They have stated that they would rather die than remain in detention without being tried or even charged, without a release date, without visits from family or any of the other rights that regular prisoners are guaranteed by law. They want to stop being the victims of that distortion of law and justice known as administrative detention - a category that accounts for around 300 Palestinians currently incarcerated in Israel.
More than two weeks ago, some 1,500 convicted prisoners joined the hunger strike. They are reported to have done so primarily to improve their prison conditions, which got much worse while negotiations were under way for the release of Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity. But representatives of the hunger strikers have said at every opportunity that they are taking part in the protest primarily to show their solidarity with the administrative detainees.
The hunger strike is the latest rock in the avalanche of largely nonviolent flotillas, "fly-ins" and marches that Palestinians and their supporters have organized, to great success, in the last several years. After all, it was a single Turkish ship that, in 2010, prompted Israel to expand the list of goods allowed into Gaza far faster than the thousands of rockets and mortar shells that Palestinians had been firing on Sderot for years. It was a single protest fly-in, and Israel's demand last month that presumed pro-Palestinian demonstrators be barred from boarding Tel Aviv-bound planes, that turned the world's attention to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. And it was a single protest bicycle tour by European and Palestinian activists in the Jericho area last month, and an Israeli officer's videotaped attack on a Danish participant, that won more international media coverage than any Palestinian shooting attack on settlers.
The hunger strike, and its ever-widening circle of participants, has already achieved a lot for the Palestinian national struggle, primarily regarding administrative detention. Israel recently released Islamic Jihad activist Khader Adnan, who refused to eat for 67 days while he was being held in administrative detention for four months. Hana Shalabi, who went on a 30-day hunger strike while under administrative detention, has been released and deported to the Gaza Strip for three years.
The research that has been conducted on hunger strikes shows that on the second or third day people stop feeling hungry. After two weeks, the glycogen reserves in the liver and muscles are depleted, causing a significant drop in weight. Around day 30, vision becomes impaired because of weakened eye muscles, vomiting begins, and hunger strikers begin to have difficulty swallowing water and suffer severe vertigo. Most of these symptoms fade after about 10 days, leaving the hunger strikers weak and apathetic. In the next few days, those who continue to refuse food can expect to lose their hearing and vision, suffer internal bleeding and ultimately die.
The State of Israel cannot allow Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahla to die of hunger. It does not have the moral legitimacy to do so. The State of Israel must submit one more time to a just and nonviolent struggle. It must release Diab and Halahla and put an end to the unacceptable practice of administrative detention.