Hunger Strikes

05.15.12

Prisoners of Process

Two days ago the news of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian prisoners to end the hunger-strike broke. The prisoners, most of whom have been without food for a month, won the right to have Gazan family visit them in prison (such visits have been denied for the past seven years) and the release of roughly 20 prisoners from solitary confinement into the general prison population (one prisoner has been in solitary confinement for almost a decade).

The agreement brokered by Egypt, however, does not end the policy of administrative detention. It simply constrains this power by requiring Israel to present concrete evidence to a military court before such a detention can be renewed. That such a basic requirement of procedural due process was achieved only after prisoners decided they would rather die of starvation than submit to Israeli authorities highlights yet again the incredible challenges that Palestinians face in dealing with Israel’s military justice system.    

More than 300 Palestinian prisoners are held under administrative detention, which allows Israeli authorities to detain individuals indefinitely on secret evidence without charge or trial. Two such prisoners, Thaer Halahla (33) and Bilal Diab (27), went without food for 77 days to protest this policy. The agreement reached yesterday committed Israel to not renewing the administrative detention orders for Halahla and Diab when they come to an end in June and August, respectively.  Diab will be able to tear up the will that he prepared, anticipating that he would die as a result of his hunger strike, and Halahla will finally be able to hold his daughter Lamar, who was born during his over two-year detention without charge. 

By Israel’s own account, administrative detention is a preventative rather than punitive form of detention.  In other words, Halahla and Diab, like all administrative detainees in Israeli custody, were not detained for something they allegedly did. Rather, they were denied their freedom and liberty for something that Israel believed they might do in the future. This is the astonishing power of administrative detention.

Administrative detention is not a new practice in Palestine.  It was one of many colonial measures used by the British Mandatory Authorities under the 1945 Defence (Emergency) Regulations, which Israel then adopted and maintained shortly after its creation in 1948. Israel claims that it has been in a state of emergency ever since, with the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) annually re-extending the validity of the state of emergency.

There are few issues that command consensus and support within Palestinian society like the issue of prisoners. Every Palestinian has been affected by this issue because nearly every Palestinian has either been in jail or knows someone who has (since Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory in 1967, an estimated 700,000 Palestinians have been detained under Israeli military orders, constituting roughly 20 percent of the total Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza).

Diab, Halahla, and the other nearly 1,600 hunger-strikers starved themselves for the sake of freedom and dignity. Using nonviolent resistance, they made the international community, the media and most critically, their Israeli captors, heed their call.  They are not the first Palestinians to use such tactics, and, so long as Israel continues to employ draconian policies against Palestinians, they will not be the last.