- Life Style
With the hunger strike of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel gathering momentum, I wanted to know names, look closely at faces, read biographies.
During the prisoner swap agreement between Hamas and Israel last October, I was troubled that it was called "the Hamas-Shalit deal," even in the Arabic press, which was used to repeating what it was told. It seemed that everyone knew the name of the low-ranking Israeli soldier and his pale visage, but there was no Palestinian prisoner’s name to clutch onto. The problem for the Palestinian prisoner was not “what’s in a name?” but having a name at all.
Gilad Shalit versus 1,027 Palestinian inmates.
The Hamas-Israel exchange embodies the enormous imbalance of power, which translates into a huge disparity in the number of prisoners taken by each side and in those prisoners' name recognition. In the years since Israel occupied the remainder of Palestine in 1967, it has jailed more than 750,000 Palestinians, not including those who are Israeli citizens. That is equivalent to one of every five of the current Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza, a phenomenal proportion by any standard. How can anyone remember so many names? The Palestinians' capture of a lone Israeli soldier was a memorable event indeed.
But in their hunger, the strikers are acquiring names. I do not mean names on an obscure website, but ones that appear repeatedly in the daily press and on television, and have wide circulation in the social media. The most prominent name is that of Khader Adnan, a baker and MA student in economics at Birzeit University in the West Bank. Adnan was released from an Israeli jail after 66 excruciating days of hunger strike that commenced on February 21 of this year. He opted for self-starvation to protest what legal jargon calls “administrative detention,” which in this case amounted to abduction by a foreign state that had no legal grounds whatsoever for seizing him.
Instead of the dawn call for prayer, more than 40 soldiers arrived at Adnan’s house, shouting, forcing an acquaintance of his to knock at the door; then they manacled his hands and his feet, dragged him, blindfolded his eyes and beat him with fists, batons and boots. During his interrogation they tortured him, swore at him and his absent parents, and threw dirt at his moustache (the moustache is a symbol of manhood in Arab culture). He fell silent in response to the insults and torture. Afterward, he went on hunger strike, at which point they threw him into solitary confinement, the favorite sadistic punishment of Israeli intelligence once it extracts all it needs from the mouth of the inmate. Adnan was going to be kept behind bars for four months, based on “secret evidence,” that is, evidence unavailable to his lawyer. You can easily imagine how even harsher would be the fate of someone accused of something.
Not long after a young woman from the West Bank, Hana Shalabi, in the area supposedly under the control of the Palestinian Authority, faced a similar abduction. She was dealt the added humiliation of a strip search by a male soldier, and was condemned to six months in solitary confinement. Perhaps because she was female, Shalabi was freed after only 43 days by the gentlemen of the Israeli government; however, since they could not keep up a pose that does not come naturally to them, they “expelled” her from her village, Burqin, to Gaza — a telling move that indicates what they think of this place they have laid siege to and pummeled with their artillery and jet fighters at will.
Now come Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahleh, whose hunger strike has exceeded 70 days. Their health is precarious and they could expire any moment. The scripts of their abduction and incarceration are almost facsimile copies of Adnan and Shalabi’s, except that Diab’s detention was renewed twice and Halahleh's eight times, entirely arbitrarily. They are determined to continue to the finish: either liberty or death. (Information about the prisoners is available on many websites, particularly Addameer.org)
Israel faces the prospect of having to release them, which would establish more precedents, or let them die. It will likely let them perish to discourage more than 1,500 prisoners who have joined what they call “the battle of the empty guts” at various dates. It must also be calculating that their deaths will provoke acts of retaliation by armed Palestinian organizations that it could use to detract from the moral capital the strike is gaining.
Diab and Halahleh’s self-starvation has just compelled the Israeli prison service to end the 13-year solitary confinement of Mahmoud Issa. As I read this fleeting news I felt a great urge to meet Issa and ask him a myriad of questions. Did he feel like the Quran’s “People of the Cave” who spent one hundred years in the darkness, but thought it was a day or part of a day when they awoke? What enabled him to endure the physical agonies? Was he allowed to read, and who became his favorite author? How did he keep his identity, his sense of self from disintegration for so long?
In an Al-Jazeera English video clip of the festivities for Sumud Koraja, who was freed in the Hamas Israel deal, there was a spirited dance by women clad in embroidered dresses, waving Palestinian flags. At the end of the clip a woman was shown dancing with her mouth wide open, revealing an upper gum missing most of its teeth — a symbolic shot, I reckoned, for the Palestinian condition.
The prisoners have taken their fate into their hands — or their delicate innards, more aptly — after losing faith in the divided and toothless Palestinian leadership, in the barely functioning Arab governments, and in the “international community,” which acts as a community only at the behest of the United States and Europe, often to let Israel get away with what no other state could.
While in the post-war era the colonized peoples posited that heroic armed resistance was the way to free themselves, the present age of human rights discourse prefers that the oppressed present themselves as docile victims to be worthy of solidarity. The Palestinian prisoner who decides to starve voluntarily is a victim who is not a victim; by braving slow, unspeakable suffering to alter his or her degraded condition, he develops agency, acquires teeth, ironically, by depriving himself of food.
The hunger striker has a greater purpose than mere survival. By exposing his fragile body to extreme danger, to extraordinary thresholds of pain, he says he demands an end to humiliation and a life with dignity; he insists that the Israeli soldiers and the Jewish settlers and their checkpoints get out of his day, out of his sleep.
But will the pain of the likes of Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahleh, the blood that pours out of their mouths, their temperatures that rise and fall — will they all speak to us, body to body, organ to organ? Will the spasm of their entrails produce sympathetic spasms in our own guts? Will the murmur of their hearts echo in ours? How many of us will be spurred into action?
I leave the final words of my vigil to the Greek poet George Seferis, and his poem, “Last Stop” about his country during World War II (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherard):
Man frays easily in wars;
man is soft, a sheaf of grass,
lips and fingers that hunger for a white breast
eyes that half-close in the radiance of the day
and feet that would run, no matter how tired,
at the slightest call for profit…
Is man ever anything else?
But the country they are chopping up and burning like a pine-tree you see it
… in the dark train, without water, the windows broken, night after night.
Sharif S. Elmusa is a Palestinian poet and professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.