To understand why the mass Palestinian hunger strike is so important, it helps to remember the first moments of the Arab Spring.
I was sitting in a large Palestinian city in the West Bank when the news broke. After 18 days, the people of Tunisia had succeeded in overthrowing the authoritarian Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali who had ruled the country for two and a half decades. In the coming days I would return from Palestine to Washington, D.C., where I’d watch the events of 25 January 2011 unfold in Cairo. The people of the Arab world were encouraged by Tunisia to challenge fears imposed by ruling regimes. Now there was proof, not only that it should be done, but that it could be done. It went from the realm of the unimaginable to reality in a matter of days.
The same thing has happened with Palestinian hunger strikes. Khader Adnan and Hana Shalabi paved the way by showing others what was possible. Suddenly, hundreds of prisoners joined the strike. Yet, before Khader Adnan, a series of acts of non-violent resistance were exploiting Israel’s particular vulnerability to such challenges. From the Flotilla, to the Nakba Day protests, to the Palestinian Freedom Riders, to weekly protests against the Wall, Israel showed time and again that it doesn’t “do Gandhi well.”
Non-violent resistance is proving successful, albeit toward limited objectives. But though these successes may be limited, they have been infinitely greater than anything the farcical negotiations process trumpeted by the official leadership has managed to secure. This has encouraged more and more people to take part in that resistance and, at the same time, has presented a political challenge to the Palestinian leadership.
This is where another historic analogy comes into play. During the first Palestinian intifada, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were rising up in resistance to the Israeli occupation. The leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization was watching from the sidelines from far off Tunis while a younger generation was taking the lead in challenging the Israeli occupation.
Undoubtedly, both the Hamas government in Gaza and Fatah’s in the West Bank hope to claim credit for the success of the steadfast prisoners. But the victory of the empty stomachs was not the result of a Hamas strategy of armed resistance or a Fatah strategy of endless negotiation without leverage. It was, instead, the triumph of a strategy of popular non-violent resistance over the harsh realities of Israeli occupation.
This is a strategy that will challenge the status quo—a now 64 year-old process of dispossession. The interests of the Israeli government are stacked against a change in that status quo. Likewise, a major uprising might deal a death blow to the Palestinian Authority and a failure to advance anything but an Islamist social agenda leaves Hamas with little support outside its religious base.
So, in recent years in particular, all of these official actors, responding to the impending crises caused by non-violent resistance, have preferred to defuse tension and prevent mass uprising. This most recent episode involving 2,000 hunger strikers proves that this is only becoming more difficult to do.
The past teaches us that such moments can be monumental because they simultaneously inspire masses and challenge ill-equipped power structures. With an increasingly entrenched Israeli occupation and with Hamas and Fatah strategies failing to adequately challenge it, look for the continued growth of mass-mobilized non-violent resistance. Also, expect attempts to repress it by those in power—who stand to directly lose the most.
But non-violent resistance will ultimately triumph, especially as Palestinians draw inspiration from the likes of Khader Adnan, Hana Shalabi, Thaer Halahleh and Bilal Diab who all chose to taste nothing more than the taste of freedom.