The Palestinian Committee for Prisoner’s Affairs, the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society, and the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics released a joint statement on Saturday, April 15, 2017, just two days ahead of Palestinian Prisoner’s Day. According to the statement, Israeli authorities have detained approximately one million Palestinians since Israel’s establishment in 1948.
As reported by Addameer, a Jerusalem-based prisoner’s support and human rights organization, roughly 6,300 Palestinian political prisoners are currently in Israeli prisons, including 500 being held in administrative detention (incarceration without charge or trial). Israel routinely uses this method of indefinite detention against Palestinians, particularly in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt), holding prisoners “for periods ranging from several months to several years.” A January 2014 report from Addameer states that up to 40% of Palestinian males in the oPt have been arrested through Israeli military orders.
Typical of repressive regimes, Israel uses its detention facilities and prisons to quash nationalist opposition and break the spirit of resistance against its settler-colonial project. Indeed, mass arrest campaigns of Palestinian activists and elected officials have occurred several times in the past. For example, in the lead-up to the January 2006 PLC (Palestinian Legislative Council) elections, 450 members of the “Change and Reform” (Hamas) bloc were detained by occupation forces. Dozens of cabinet officials and members of parliament were also rounded up following the capture of Israeli soldier Gilat Shalit by Hamas operatives in June 2006. According to the Palestinian prisoner solidarity network, Samidoun, there are currently twelve legislators, representing Hamas, Fatah, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, sitting inside Israeli jails.
But, if Israeli prisons function as tools to regulate the native population, they simultaneously serve as sites for Palestinian political and social mobilization.
To mark Palestinian Prisoner’s Day, on Monday, April 17, some 1,600 Palestinian prisoners across the political spectrum launched an open hunger strike, calling for an end to their inhumane treatment and the establishment of a mass movement against the Israeli occupation. Thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip responded to the call, by rallying in support of the initiative and clashing with Israeli forces.
The hunger strike is being led by jailed Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti, who has been commonly referred to, in the international press, as the “Palestinian Mandela”; in an attempt to foil the hunger strike, Barghouti has been forced into solitary confinement, along with six other hunger strikers.
Israeli prisons served as training and recruiting grounds for the resistance after June 1967 and well into the 1980s. In confinement, Palestinian detainees received instruction and developed a “revolutionary culture” through educational programs, seminars, smuggled literary/historical writings, and “ideological curricula” organized and disseminated by other prisoners (usually veteran guerrillas). This instruction prepared these detainees for leading roles in political organizations upon their release.
Because the Israeli military and security apparatus penetrates “virtually all aspects of Palestinian life,” just about every Palestinian family has had a relative incarcerated by the Israeli regime. As a result, prisoner initiatives have tended to spread and resonate within Palestinian society.
According to the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society, the first Palestinian hunger strike happened in 1968, less than a year after Israel’s conquest of the oPt. Since then, about twenty-five hunger strikes have been held. The last and most notorious hunger strike was the “battle of empty stomachs,” which was launched in 2012, following the high-profile administrative detention of Khader Adnan, a suspected activist for Islamic Jihad. Adnan’s first hunger strike lasted an unprecedented sixty-six days and successfully drew international attention to the issue of administrative detention of Palestinian prisoners. Images of Adnan and the detainees became symbols throughout the region of Palestinian steadfastness.
For the current prisoner’s movement to achieve its demands, it will take more than resolve. Public support and mobilization on the ground is crucial, coupled with sustained media attention and scrutiny of Israel’s abusive practices towards the Palestinian population.