Hunger Strikes Against Detention


It may not have been widely reported, but from the end of last year a running series of hunger strikes by Palestinian political prisoners has been underway inside Israel’s jails. The strikers are demanding to have their basic human rights recognised and to be free of degrading treatment by Israeli prison services.

The hunger strikes that are occurring now are the latest wave in protest against an Israeli government practice called administrative detention. Under this scheme detainees are arrested and held without charge for periods of up to six months in duration that can be renewed at any time. The administrative detainees do not have to be informed of their charges or even if they have been charged at all. This is in violation of international law and the practice is routinely condemned by mainstream human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Israel’s leading human rights group Bt’selem.

The first hunger strike began late last year when Khader Adnan, a baker from the village of Arraba near Jenin in the West Bank was arrested at midnight on 17 December and sentenced to four months administrative detention. Neither he, nor his lawyers were informed of any charges. He went on a hunger strike the following day, demanding his release. His stand lasted 66 days and aroused the conscience of many in the international community who called for his release, such as former Irish hunger strikers Raymond McCartney and Tommy McKearney as well as solidarity groups in Canada, Scotland and elsewhere throughout the world. His strike came to an end on 21 February when it was announced that his lawyers had secured his release.

The date of his release, 17 May, is now known as Palestinian Prisoners Day. He returned to his home to the rejoicing of his loving family. Adnan’s example of samud (steadfastness) was taken up by others who also refused food and instead demanded dignity.

Some of the strikes have lasted a less than a month while others such as that of football player Mahmoud Sarsak lasted over 90 days, during which he won the support of elite athletes around the world who rallied to his cause. On Monday, political prisoner Akram Rikhawi won his freedom after going on a 102-day hunger strike, a marathon effort that brought him to the verge of death and raised the very real fears of his family that he might never have made it out alive. The hunger strikes continue to this day and look set to continue into the future as long as the prisoners are denied their rights.

ALP by Senator Clair Moore made a short but impassioned speech in the Senate about the injustice of administrative detention, its illegality and the hunger strikers’ response to it. Foreign Minister Bob Carr is yet to issue any statement on the hunger strikers.

That speeches like Moore’s have been rare ought to shame our representatives in parliament. This may have something to do with a media environment that is hostile to expressions of solidarity with Palestinians.

The media circus in 2011 that developed around the NSW Greens’ stands on Palestinian rights and subsequent call for BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) against Israel will act as a strong deterrent to politicians who adopt a pro-Palestine position.

Marrickville Council burst into the national headlines after the council began discussing whether or not to boycott Israeli products. In an essay in the recently published book Left Turn, Kim Bullimore carefully documents the media scare campaign against both politicians and activists who advocated BDS. Chief amongst the culprits was The Australian newspaper. Bullimore writes that "The Australian and its stable mates seized on the NSW Greens and the Marrickville Council adoption of BDS as a wedge issue" and set out to destroy them.

The paper’s assault upon the Greens ranged from publishing stories about the party supposedly spending $40,000 on the BDS campaign, which upon closer investigation turned out to be fabrication, to running several articles equating Greens politicians with Nazis and accusing them of outright anti-Semitism. The controversy surrounding the vote took its toll and the motion in support of BDS was voted down.

The media campaign has largely succeeded and the Greens have backed away from the issue of Palestine. New Party leader Christine Milne has stated that it is "behind us" and the party wants to "restart the conversation". Adam Bandt was quick to follow suit making similar remarks and Melbourne state by-election candidate Cathy Oke also echoed the sentiment.

Like Kevin Rudd before him Bob Carr has sought to improve Australia’s standing in world affairs; Carr continues to seek a non-permanent seat the UN Security Council for 2013-14 and is promoting its bid on the basis of human rights. A flyer released by the government says "Australia is committed to promoting and protecting human rights universally" and that it "has an enduring commitment to human rights internationally". In light of our silence on Palestinian human rights, this claim seems tenuous.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.