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As Palestinian hunger strikes come to a head, world begins to take notice

Four Palestinian prisoners are on hunger strikes to protest their administrative detention and the conditions in which they are being held. While the EU calls on Israel to respect its obligations toward Palestinian prisoners’ human rights, an Israeli NGO reports they are being treated unethically in hospital.

Prison guards wheel hunger striker Samer Assawi into the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court on February 19, 2013 (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

All anyone in Israel has spoken about for the past week is ‘Prisoner X,’ the Jewish-Israeli-Australian Mossad agent held secretly by his own country, who supposedly took his own life in prison two years ago. But only a few miles from Israeli newsrooms in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, outrage over a different type of prisoner in Israeli jails has been mounting for months and is coming to a head.

Four Palestinian men in Israeli prisons are currently in the late stages of prolonged hunger strikes protesting the legal basis of their imprisonment: administrative detention and military committee sentencing decisions based on secret evidence. Both amount to imprisonment without knowledge of what they are accused and without the right to a trial.

In recent days, at least one of the prisoners reportedly intensified his hunger strike, refusing all medical treatment, including vitamins and minerals. Their health is said to be deteriorating.

Thousands of Palestinians have taken to the streets throughout the West Bank in recent weeks, leading to violent clashes with the IDF and including protests that shut down the Ramallah offices of the Red Cross and UN.

Tear gas outside Ofer prison (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

Tear gas outside Ofer prison (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

Hundreds of Palestinian citizens of Israel have also protested in solidarity with the hunger strikers on the other side of the Green Line.

Demonstration in front of Ramle prison in solidarity with hunger-striking Palestinian prisoner Samer Issawi, February 4, 2013. Issawi is currently held in an Israeli medical detention center in critical condition. (Photo by: Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Quartet envoy Tony Blair have both called on Israel to respect the human rights of Palestinian prisoners in accordance with its obligations in international law. Responding to the hunger strikers’ deteriorating health condition, Ashton said Saturday, “Under international law, detainees have the right to be informed about the reasons underlying any detention and to have the legality of their detention determined without undue delay.”

The Arab League has demanded the international community take responsibility and break its “unjustified silence” over the injustices Israel subjects Palestinian prisoners to.

In its preparations for U.S. President Obama’s upcoming visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah, the Palestinian government is also reportedly pushing the issue of prisoners to the top of its agenda.

The longest of the hunger strikes is reported to be around 200 days, although it was not clear if it has been continuous. Samer Issawi was released as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange in October, 2011, having served 10 years of a 30-year sentence. He began his hunger strike nine months later, shortly after the IDF re-arrested him. Issawi is protesting the legal mechanism that put him in prison without access to due process. He was re-sentenced by a military committee using secret evidence that neither he nor his lawyers can see, and therefore cannot mount a defense in court.

Ayman Sharawna was also re-arrested and sentenced under similar conditions using secret evidence, thereby denying him the ability to defend himself in court.

Two other prisoners on hunger strike, Jafar Azzidine and Tareq Qa’adan, are being held in administrative detention; they were never charged with a crime, told what they are accused of or given a chance to defend themselves or clear their names. Those two men have been on a continuous hunger strike for 84 days and are being held at a medical facility in Ramle Prison. According to Physicians for Human Rights, they are not eating but are drinking and receiving some minerals and vitamins.

Administrative detention, which is permissible under international law only in extreme cases to prevent immediate and grave dangers, is widely abused by Israel to imprison Palestinians. During a mass, 1,400-prisoner hunger strike last year to protest the practice, Israel was said to be holding over 300 Palestinians in administrative detention. Acknowledging the legally problematic nature of the practice, even the most senior Israeli security officials have admitted it is unnecessary.

But beyond the highly problematic and illegal (under international law) mechanisms for detaining them, Israel’s treatment toward the hunger strikers defies its own laws and regulations, medical ethics and international conventions, Israeli NGO Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) wrote in a statement.

After petitioning Israeli courts to demand visits with the hunger striking prisoners, PHR recently met with and examined Azzidine and Qa’adan. They were are kept shackled in their hospital beds overnight and are being denied family visits, despite being in danger of dying, the statement said.

The main health danger for hunger strikers, PHR’s executive director Ran Cohen told +972 is that heart failure can take place without any warning, at any time.

Azzidine and Qa’adan were recently brought to Assaf Harofe Medical Center against their will and underwent medical testing despite their refusal to be treated, they told a lawyer representing PHR, Cohen said. The prisoners refused to be taken to civilian hospitals unless they were given guarantees they will not be shackled to their beds, which goes against Israeli Medical Association and Israel Prison Service regulations. Nonetheless, after being physically forced to go to the hospital, the two reported that their wrists and ankles were shackled to their beds overnight during their hospitalization.

“Israel’s use of administrative detention based on military regulations to incarcerate individuals without trial is evidence that this is but one more tool used to repress residents of the occupied territories,” a PHR statement asserted.

“The fact that medical personnel are also involved, the violations of the right to health and the courts failure to preserve the inmates’ rights is evidence of Israel’s widespread and systemic moral, ethical and professional failures,” the statement added.

Israeli courts are set to hear appeals in two cases relating to the hunger strikers in the coming days. One of the cases is challenging the military committees that sentenced the men, and the second is by PHR seeking regular access to the hunger strikers.

On a separate but related note, a PLO official reportedly said U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro promised him Israel would release 550 Palestinian prisoners ahead of Obama’s visit in the coming weeks, according to Israeli daily Ma’ariv on Monday. (Hebrew)

Update (Tuesday, Feb 19):
On Tuesday, 800 Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons began a one-day hunger strike in solidarity with the four hunger strikers, Palestinian prisoner support and human rights NGO Addameer reported.

Update 2 (Tuesday, Feb 19):
The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court rejected a request to release Samer Assawi earlier Tuesday. His next hearing is scheduled for March 14.

Read a recent letter by Samer Issawi describing the reasons for his determination to continue his hunger strike here.

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    1. aristeides

      We can be pretty sure that Obama will do nothing on this issue.

      Reply to Comment
    2. “You will burn to ashes with your own voice!”

      “If I don’t burn, if you don’t burn, if we don’t burn, how will the darkness turn to light?”

      –Fazil Say, Nazim Oratorio

      (And this has nothing to do with suicide bombers)

      Reply to Comment
    3. rsgengland

      If any country succumbs to the blackmail of ‘hunger strikers’, the result will be more hunger strikers.
      It is a no win situation.
      If the demands of the hunger strikers are met, the queue of potential copiers gets longer.
      If the demands of the hunger strikers is met, its rated as a victory, and the process is repeated over and over again.
      In my opinion, there are three options.
      1) Succumb to the demands.
      2) Ensure that the persons in question are prevented from starving, under transparent and open supervision.
      3) Allow them to achieve their aims, and suffer the consequences. There will be a point in time where it becomes a zero sum game, and situations like this cease to occur.
      Either way a definite policy has to be adopted and followed, with everyone being aware of the consequences.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        (1) isn’t really an option for the reasons you already stated.

        (2) is probably the most reasonable option since no one really cares about Palestinians on hunger strike that don’t die. It is also relatively inexpensive from a media point of view since it is just a continuation of the status quo which has zero media value.

        (3) This is not a great policy because letting a prisoner die creates a lot more stories in the media – ‘is israel going to allow him to die’ and ‘was it worth it for him to die’ and ‘martyrs’ and ‘nonviolent resistance’ and all that. Letting a prisoner die doesn’t mean that other prisoners are going to stop hunger strikes. If anything it would increase their motivation to do so because it creates more of a possibility for media exposure which is the whole point of the exercise and not death.

        Reply to Comment
      • The underlying issue here, which niether of you mention, is the God like nature of administrative detention. You simply assume the State is always right in what it does, or that the errors are a cost absorbed to retain the benefits. Neither of you ask why someone would fast unto near death; it is simply a nuisance, or another tactic in the ever war which must be deflected. Neither of you considers the possibility that their action may change their very path. Nor would release instill fasts unto death; the resolve is very hard to maintain.

        So let’s be honest: the justice of any case is irrelevant. All that matters is that the State is keeping the brutality of Palestinians at bay. The fast unto death is just another form of brutality.

        Reply to Comment
        • Secondary remark: what makes administrative detention truly bizarre is that military court oversight would undoubtedly affirm their reasons for detention, yet the security apparatus won’t shift them into this category. One cannot argue that secret information would be released through the shift, for the military courts can preserve any secrecy. Even though Israel’s case would be stronger under such new “oversight,” nothing will be granted the faster; he shall not move the State. We decide; you conform.

          Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          That’s right. To guarantee that buses don’t get blown up in my city full of citizens of my country I am perfectly content to allow my government to use whatever minimal means are required to achieve that. I don’t know what those minimal means are but I do know that I would hold the government guilty if they failed in their duty to protect me.

          The reason why someone would fast until death is out of ideological commitment to a certain cause. There are no other reasons for such an act. Either premature release or death are both victories and would lead to the continued use of the tactic..

          Reply to Comment
    4. Shmuel

      “The Arab League has demanded the international community take responsibility and break its “unjustified silence” over the injustices Israel subjects Palestinian prisoners”

      The Arab League is as hypocritical as the rest of the world. They focus on what Israel does but ignore the much greater human rights abuses that go on in Arab societies, including the ones perpetrated by the PA and Hamas.

      “From 2007-2011, the PA detained 13,271 Palestinians, and tortured 96% of them resulting in six deaths.”

      As for the EU, they are hypocrites too. They have gone completely silent about Gitmo. One has to guess that they find Israel a much easier target to preach to and score political points than by picking on ‘the big boys’. They are so obscenely transparent.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Shmuel

      Talking about Gitmo, this is what happened when the Americans were foolish enough to listen to the voices that seem now to preach to Israel …

      “US intelligence officials believe Sufyan Ben Qumu, one of the leaders of the al Qaeda-linked Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia, is likely to have been behind the assault.”

      … the Benghazi assault in which the American ambassador was murdered. And Sufyan Ben Qumu was releasd from Gitmo.

      Thats what can happen when governments get persuaded by “the voices of reason” from the sidelines. The voices of so called progressives who don’t have to pay the price for being wrong. Other people pay for it with their lives.

      Israel would do well to ignore it’s critics and do what is necessary for the well being of IT’s citizens.

      Reply to Comment
      • You well know that pay goes the other way as well, when individuals are not released who would be no real danger. The logic you use could also lead one to conclude that anyone committed of a violent crime should either be executed or incarcerated for life. Dick Cheny’s 1% rule focuses on cherry picked cases; there are, however, numerous other cases “at the 1% level” which is ignores. So at least report all those released from Gitmo with the number involved in latter actions. And, yes, I do believe that number will not be zero.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Shmuel

      “The logic you use could also lead one to conclude that anyone committed of a violent crime should either be executed or incarcerated for life.”

      The logic that I use is that we should leave the decision to well selected professionals who should be accountable for their actions through checks, balances and actual performance.

      All of that would hopefully lead to keeping those who pose danger incarcerated until such time that they no longer deeme to pose danger.

      What I do know though is that those responsible professionals should not be swayed by some naive well meaning hecklers from the sideline, and certainly not be malicious ideologues with political agendas.

      Reply to Comment
    7. In many ways, the racism that Davuluri experienced is part of a larger pattern in which a variety of groups are targeted. In New York City, where I live, attacks on Sikhs have jumped since 9/11, driven by people who believe their victims are Muslim – a mistake that many of those on Twitter made about Davuluri. In August, 2012 a white supremacist

      Reply to Comment