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Historic victory for Palestinian prisoners

Amelia Murphy-Beaudoin

May 20, 2012

Hunger strikes have historically been the only way that prisoners in Israeli jails have won demands for their basic rights. Since Israel began its occupation in 1948, there have been more than 15 open-ended hunger strikes by Palestinians in Israeli jails.

The most recent mass hunger strike has become known as “the battle of the empty stomachs”. It began on April 17 and ended on May 14 when a deal mediated by Egypt made Israeli authorities agree to comply with the prisoners’ central demands.

Over 2,000 Palestinian prisoners participated in the hunger strike. Three were striking for nearly 80 days. They were near death when the deal was brokered. An April 28 statement from the leadership committee for the hunger strikers said “we swear to continue to strike until our demands are met, no matter what the cost. We believe in our right to a dignified life even if we fall as martyrs.”

Israel’s treatment of Palestinian prisoners is a direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and it has drawn international criticism from human rights groups. Israeli authorities have continuously ignored every UN resolution passed on the treatment of prisoners, and even breached the World Medical Association (WMA) guidelines on the treatment of hunger strikers by denying proper medical treatment, isolating strikers, beating them, and denying family visits.

Under the deal, Israel agreed to release all prisoners from isolation. Some detainees had spent 10 years in solitary confinement. Israel agreed to end the prohibition on family visits and to revoke the “Shalit” law that restricted access to educational materials and newspapers. They guaranteed an improvement to the overall conditions of imprisonment, and vitally they promised an end to the administrative detention (a renewable imprisonment order without charges or trial) except for very serious cases.

This victory is bittersweet. It coincided with the 64th anniversary of the Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic), the campaign of ethnic cleansing when over 700,000 Palestinians were forced to leave their homes and over 300 Palestinian villages and towns were destroyed. Nakba Day events around the world demonstrated support of the Palestinian political prisoners.

The hunger strikes proved the power of non-violent resistance. The courage and determination of the strikers has inspired people in a way similar to the first Intifada when street actions and hunger strikes mobilized Palestinians.

Historically, Israel has failed to respect the agreements it executes with Palestinians regarding prisoners’ issues. The Palestinian liberation struggle continues, and it is vital that the international community continues to exert pressure on Israel to comply with international human rights and humanitarian law.

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