New York Times: Palestinian Resistance Shifts to Hunger Strikes

3 May 2012

Originally found at

By Jody Rudoren

KHARAS, West Bank — The newest heroes of the Palestinian cause are not burly young men hurling stones or wielding automatic weapons. They are gaunt adults, wrists in chains, starving themselves inside Israeli prisons.

Each day since April 17, scores of Palestinian prisoners have joined a hunger strike that officials say now counts more than 1,500 participants. And on Thursday, the Palestinian Authority’s minister of detainees said that if Israel did not yield to their demands for improved prison conditions, the remaining 3,200 would soon join in.

The two longest-striking prisoners, who have gone without food for 66 days, appeared in wheelchairs before Israel’s Supreme Court on Thursday morning, pleading for their release from what is known here as administrative detention — incarceration without formal charges. One of them, Bilal Diab, 27, fainted during the hearing.

“I am a man who loves life, and I want to live in dignity,” the other man, Thaer Halahleh, 33, testified, according to an advocacy group that had a supporter in the courtroom. “No human can accept being in jail for one hour without any charge or reason.”

As the strike has swelled, the prisoners’ names and faces have been plastered on protest tents in villages throughout the West Bank. With the peace process stalled and internal Palestinian politics adrift, many analysts here see nonviolent resistance as a critical tactic for the Palestinian national movement, and the hunger strike as a potential catalyst to bring an Arab Spring-style uprising to the West Bank.

While the revolutions around the region have helped elevate support for the Palestinian cause, they have also undermined the leadership it has long relied on, and until now the streets here have largely remained quiet.

Prisoners play a crucial emotional and political role in Palestinian culture. Virtually every family has been touched by incarceration, experts say, and there is a visceral sense of allegiance to people viewed as suffering for the broader community’s rights. The prisoners are highly organized, and influential even on the outside.

On Thursday in Ramallah, 300 women marched to Al Manara Square, chanting, “Yes for hunger strike, no to submission” and “Down with the olive branch, long live the rifle.” By late afternoon, hundreds of protesters carrying Palestinian flags had gathered outside Ramle Prison, where many of the strikers are held, near Ben-Gurion International Airport in Israel, and scuffles broke out between the police and demonstrators. Several people were arrested.

“There’s a real transformation in the way the prisoners are working — this time, people are willing to die,” Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said in a recent interview. “Look, the Palestinians may be quiet for a while, but they may erupt. There’s a sinking-in of the idea that nonviolent resistance gets results.”

This week, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, promised to take the prisoners’ case to the United Nations. Khader Habib, the leader of Islamic Jihad, warned that “the martyrdom of Bilal Diab or Thaer Halahleh or any other prisoner will put an end to the calm, and the occupation will be held responsible for the consequences.”

But so far, the solidarity demonstrations have been small. About 30 people gathered on Tuesday at the Beituniya checkpoint outside Ofer Prison, chanting for 15 minutes before dispersing into two hours of clashes with Israeli soldiers and border police officers that left several injured.

“It’s obvious that people don’t care,” said Rizek Fadayel, who stood in the center of Ramallah earlier on Tuesday, holding a Palestinian flag and a framed photograph of his hunger-striking son, Rami, as a May Day band blared by.

“If your hand is in the fire, it’s not like your hand is in the water,” Mr. Fadayel, 65, said to explain the difference between those directly connected to the prisoners and those not. “I want to raise their voices and achieve their goals. If this situation will continue, we’ll be heading to a third intifada.”

Hunger striking by Palestinian prisoners is not a new tactic. According to the Palestine Solidarity Project, the tactic was first used in the Nablus prison in 1968 and has been repeated at least 15 times since, with three men dying over the years. Qadura Fares, the head of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, said that in 2004 virtually all of the Palestinians held in Israeli prisons took part in a two-week strike, and that the most ever was 11,000 prisoners, in 1992.

But social media have spread the siren this time, first on Khader Adnan, a member of Islamic Jihad who was released last month from administrative detention after a 66-day fast that left him in grave condition. Attention then shifted to Hana Shalabi, a female prisoner deported to Gaza after a 43-day strike, and is now focused on Mr. Halahleh and Mr. Diab, who also are members of Islamic Jihad, a radical and militant Palestinian faction.

In court on Thursday, after Mr. Diab fainted and Mr. Halahleh testified, the judge took a break to review their secret files, then returned without issuing a ruling, promising one soon, according to people who were in the courtroom.

Mr. Fares of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club said the goals of the current strike were to remove some of the restrictions that were imposed on prisoners before the release of a captive Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, including isolation, limits on family visits and denial of access to university classes. Sivan Weizman, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Prison Service, said that a team was working to address the requests and would meet again with the prisoners’ leaders within a few days.

For most of the days since Mr. Halahleh stopped eating, his relatives, neighbors and friends have kept vigil at his home here in a remote part of the Hebron hills from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., many of them also going without food in sympathy.

The men sit on white plastic chairs outside, spilling from a makeshift structure of black burlap and green two-by-fours, topped with Islamic Jihad flags and a banner with Mr. Halahleh’s portrait and a picture of a shackled wrist. Inside the white stone house — where family members say the son was arrested at 1:30 a.m. on June 27, 2010, by soldiers who came with dogs — women crowd on cushions on the floor, their heads covered by hijabs and their bare feet by blankets, praying and talking and pleading with the television in the corner for any speck of news.

“I am sitting with the women, but I am not here — my heart and feeling is with him,” Thaer Halahleh’s mother, Fatmeh, 58, said in an interview Tuesday night. “Sixty-five days. After two hours we feel that we want to eat. What about 65 days? We calculate the seconds.

“I am very afraid, but at the same time I am very proud,” she added. “I wish every Palestinian woman had a Thaer.”

Shireen Halahleh, 29, a physics teacher from Jordan, said that she married Mr. Halahleh in July 2009, and that he soon stopped political activity. He was arrested two weeks before the birth of their 22-month-old daughter, Lamar, who has seen her father only six times and goes to bed each night with his picture.

“He is a strong man; if he took a decision, he will do it,” Ms. Halahleh said.

“He does not represent himself,” she added. “He represents all of the Palestinian people.”

International aid workers and Israeli peace advocates are among those who have made the pilgrimage to the tent in recent days, family members said. On Tuesday night, Mr. Halahleh’s father, Aziz Mahmoud Halahleh, fingered a strand of orange and yellow plastic beads as he shared the details he had learned earlier in Ramallah.

“This is the last weapon,” the elder Mr. Halahleh said of the strike. “If any of the prisoners will lose their life, Israel or the Palestinian Authority could not stop the Palestinian people.”