Palestinian hunger strikers are facing harsh retaliation inside Israeli prisons

Police arrest an Israeli left-wing activist during a protest in solidarity with hospitalized Palestinian hunger striker Khalil Awawdeh (Ilia Yefimovich - Picture Alliance)

Mike Ludwig

Truthout  /  October 12, 2022

Well over 100 Palestinians, many of them children, have been killed so far this year in connection to increasingly deadly Israeli military raids on neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. The reported killings of two teenagers and a 12-year-old boy during a military raid on the West Bank city of Jenin that injured multiple people over the past weekend — and a deadly attack on an Israeli military checkpoint in apparent retaliation — is just the latest spasm of violence erupting from the Israeli security state’s occupation of Palestine.

Israel is not just targeting suspected “militants” and the youth who take the streets and throw rocks in protest when the army invades their neighbourhoods. Civilians, bystanders, anti-settlement activists, journalists and Palestinian human rights attorneys have also been killed and arrested during protests and military raids in recent months and throughout Israel’s history. Moreover, hundreds of Palestinians are routinely jailed without charges or trial under a system of “administrative detention” that Israeli authorities routinely abuse to silence dissent, according the United Nations and Palestinian activists.

At least 50 Palestinian prisoners and human rights activists are now undertaking an open-ended hunger strike in protest of being jailed under “administrative detention” without charges or a trial and in alleged violation of international law, and their supporters say they are facing life-threatening retaliation from Israeli prison officials. About 20 strikers announced this week that they would join a group of 30 detained Palestinians that launched a hunger strike on September 25, according to human rights groups.

Among them is Salah Hamouri, a prominent French-Palestinian human rights attorney and father of two from occupied East Jerusalem. Hamouri has been held without charges for the last six months based on “secret evidence” unknown to him or the public, according to human rights groups. Supporters say Israeli prison officials are retaliating against the striking prisoners by “forcing them into solitary confinement” and confiscating salt they rely on for essential nutrients to survive.

Activists are now calling on the international community to take “urgent global action” pressuring Israel to meet the strikers’ demands and end its system of “arbitrarily” jailing and abusing Palestinians under vague orders issued by military courts, a practice devised under Israeli anti-terrorism laws that has its roots in era of British colonialism, according to the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association.

“It is a form of collective punishment and arbitrary detention,” said Milena Ansari, a Jerusalem-based advocate with Addameer, in an interview with Truthout. “I’m not saying this out of just being a Palestinian, but because Addameer has been working in Israeli military and civil courts for 30 years now, and we’ve seen how the prosecutors and the courts systematically rely on administrative detention as a coercive tool.”

Israeli military commanders consistently issue Palestinians administrative detention orders for “security reasons” based solely on “secret evidence,” according to Addameer. Once the order is issued, the detainee can be jailed for up to six months without even being informed of the evidence against them — and military courts can extend the detention period indefinitely. While detention orders are subject to a form of “judicial review” and an appeals process, Ansari said they are almost always upheld, and dozens of hunger strikers are boycotting their administrative court hearings in protest.

Of the 4,700 Palestinian “political prisoners” currently believed to be held in Israeli prisons, an estimated 800 are held under administrative detention order, although Ansari cautions that is possibly an undercount. Ansari said that arbitrary arrests and indefinite detention allows the Israeli military to wage a form of psychological warfare while taking aid workers, protesters, politicians, students, journalists, activists and human rights lawyers off the streets, part of a broader campaign to weaken Palestinian civil society.

“The Israeli occupation also intentionally doesn’t tell the Palestinian detainees under administrative detention when they will be released,” Ansari said. “They know that their order, for example, might end at this specific date, but they don’t know if the order will be renewed at the same time … so there’s constant anxiety and instability, and this also has a chilling effect on their families.”

Indeed, the Israeli military recently outlawed Addameer and six other Palestinian civil society and human rights groups after raiding their offices on the occupied West Bank and accusing them of ties to “terrorist” groups, a charge the organizations deny. Ansari said it’s now illegal to associate with the groups, which include the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees and Defense for Children International-Palestine. Members of Congress and the European Union that back the mostly left-wing groups have flatly rejected Israel’s “terrorism” claims based on flimsy evidence, according to reports.

With activists facing criminalization and scrambling to support their comrades in detention, the hollowing out of Palestinian civil society leaves Palestinians with dwindling political options while living under the thumb of an apartheid state. Palestine’s politics are largely dominated by two rival factions, Hamas on the Gaza strip and Fatah in the occupied West Bank. While the two sides are reportedly working to resolve simmering conflicts, both have also been accused of jailing political opponents and using torture and other forms of repression to stifle dissent.

Meanwhile, the Israeli military continues its raids on neighbourhoods and refugee camps in occupied Palestine, arresting protesters and shooting to kill any young “stone-throwers” in the streets.

For incarcerated activists, intentionally starving to catch the world’s attention is now their best option, even if the cruelty is difficult to see. Last month, an Israeli court in occupied Ramallah on the West Bank extended the detention of 40-year-old Khalil Awawdeh after he endured a historic hunger strike that brought him close to death. Awawdeh ended the strike after more than 170 days when a deal was struck for his release, which the court then delayed by up to a week despite protests from his family.

Ansari said there is no way to seek justice in the Israeli military’s administrative courts, so the hunger strikers must use their bodies to resist the “disciplinary powers of domination” within Israeli prisons. The hunger strikers are not specifically demanding their individual release, Ansari said, they are collectively demanding an end to the system of arbitrary administrative detention itself. The hunger strikers and their lawyers began the effort by boycotting the Israeli military courts that issue administrative detention orders as the number of Palestinians held without charges increased in recent years, Ansari said.

“So, they all decided to boycott Israeli military courts in order not to give legitimacy to these courts that, as I mentioned, play an integral role in facilitating what the Israeli occupation wants,” Ansari said, adding that the hunger strikers refused to attend their military detention hearings or engage in the system’s appeal process. “Their legitimate demand is to put an end to the policy of administrative detention, which targets former prisoners, ill and elderly Palestinians, female prisoners, and children as well.”

Mike Ludwig is a staff reporter at Truthout based in New Orleans