For decades, Palestinian prisoners have used hunger strikes as a means of reclaiming power and control, turning the body into a weapon.
On January 4, 2022, Palestinian prisoner Hisham Abu Hawwash ended 140 days of hunger strike in an Israeli jail. He demanded an end to his administrative detention, which allows the Israeli military to hold Palestinians on “secret information” without charging them or allowing them to stand trial. Abu Hawwash’s lawyer, Jawad Boulos, said he agreed to end the strike following Tel Aviv’s assurances to release him on February 26.
Hunger strikers depend heavily on exposing injustices through sacrificial action. They force the public to question the conditions under which a prisoner would be willing to embark on a self-sacrificial journey to put an end to them. They rely on lawyers’ reports, family support, media coverage, and public solidarity actions. With little coverage of hunger strikes in traditional media, social media has become an active hub for support. Activists use it to launch online campaigns, and in the case of Abu Hawwash, we have seen trending hashtags that drew attention to his case.
Abu Hawwash forced a concession from Israeli authorities at a steep cost to his health. As is often the case, hunger strikes take a toll on the body, and by extension, one’s life. It often leaves the body with irreversible damage. Death is always possible, but never desired or an ultimate purpose - but is a potential component of this type of resistance.
Israel fears a martyred prisoner so much that it will resort to force-feeding. As early as 1969, Israeli authorities employed force-feeding to end hunger strikes, using plastic pipes to pass food into the prisoners’ stomachs through their nostrils. It first led to the death of Abd al-Qadir Abu al-Fahem on July 11, 1970 in Askalan Prison. This led to a huge mobilisation outside the prison, and later, several large protests.
Abu al-Fahem was on his third day of hunger strike and his health at the time didn’t require force-feeding. If this shows one thing, it is that Israeli authorities do not force-feed hunger strikers to save their lives but to strip them of their ability to resist. Abu al-Fahem was the first Palestinian prisoner to die in Israeli prison.
Hunger strikers are aware of these consequences. They are ready to go as far as death to live the life they wish, without dehumanisation. They prefer death over a life without dignity. The potential for death also means that hunger strikers require and show absolute commitment to achieve their demands.
Abu Hawwash is one of thousands of Palestinian prisoners who have embarked on hunger strikes since early 1968, when the first prison hunger strike was documented in Nablus Prison for three days. The prisoners were then protesting beatings and humiliation by Israeli prison officers and demanding better living conditions.
In my research, I have come across stories from the 1980s until 2021 in which women were forced to use already-used sanitary pads, their undershirts, other clothing, a large amount of tissue paper in their underwear, and even blankets, instead of pads.
On April 28, 1970, Palestinian women led a nine-day hunger strike in Neve Tirza Prison, seeking several demands including access to sanitary products. They were subjected to humiliation and isolation in solitary confinement. They attained one of their demands: sanitary products, but even this achievement was short-lived.
Although these hunger strikes did not garner huge victories, they were of the first political protests in such a form to raise awareness about the prisoners’ conditions. They led to longer and more successful hunger strikes in different locations.
Since 1968, Palestinian hunger strikers have achieved several demands. Everything in the prison today has a story of resistance behind it - blankets, pens, books, food, and family visits. Each of these were once demands by prisoners on hunger strikes.
A hunger strike is much more than rejecting food. It is a powerful means of pragmatic resistance that aims to achieve pragmatic results. It involves challenging power dynamics and structures of oppression and actively deciding what enters one’s body and when, directly rejecting Israeli prison authorities’ control over prisoners’ bodies and lives. It is a way of reclaiming this power, seizing back control, and establishing an active role by turning the body into a weapon.
Between internal political division among Palestinians and Israel’s divide and conquer policies in prisons, we may see more individual hunger strikes in the coming months and years, as prisoners take matters into their own hands. In the Palestinian context, we have seen a surge in individual hunger strikes to protest administrative detention since December 2011.
In the words of Sahar Francis, director of Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights, the internal division in particular has been instrumental in diminishing “the prisoners’ struggle” from a “cohesive, anti-colonial, national” one, to a “cause that is fractured along party lines and mostly focused on resisting everyday abuses within the prison system”.
In the absence of a collective action in prison, individual strikes become a last resort. Yet, the individual actions are still unifying in the collective anti-colonial struggle for justice and freedom across Palestine.
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