On May 15, 2012, the 64th anniversary of the Nakba, or Catastrophe, when 700,000 Palestinians were expelled and forced out of their homes by Zionist occupying forces, celebrations rather than mourning took place across the Occupied Territories. Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike, some for over 70 days, had won concessions from Israel to improve their conditions and limit administrative detentions without trial, a controversial procedure that allows the Israeli military to hold prisoners indefinitely on secret information without charging them or allowing them to stand trial. Both Israeli and Palestinian officials, as well as representatives of Palestinian militant groups, attended the Egyptian-brokered deal two days ago, on May 24, 2012. With over 2,000 prisoners on hunger strike, the agreement ended one of the largest prison protests ever carried out by the Palestinians.
Among the prisoners’ demands were permission for family members to visit detainees from the Gaza Strip, an end to solitary confinement, and an end to the Israeli policy of administrative detention. Israel, however, adamantly refused to end detentions and the two longest hunger strikers, Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahleh, who endured 77 days without food, refused to end their strikes until their administrative detentions were lifted. Diab had been held without charge since August 2011 and Halahleh had been in detention since June 2010, having already spent six and a half years in administrative detention.
As demonstrations in support of the hunger strike were taking place in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Mahmoud Abbas, his cronies, and Israeli and Western patrons were scrambling to resolve the standoff before any of the hunger strikers died. Although it is highly doubtful these officials had any personal concern for the prisoners’ well-being, it is certain that if a resolution was not reached the protests would have only grown in size and anger, threatening to engulf the territories in a third intifada and placing Abbas’ authority in jeopardy. In a statement made to Reuters, Abbas said, “If anyone dies… it would be a disaster and no one could control the situation.” Never failing to disappoint, Israeli security forces responded to this potential threat by attacking protests with teargas, rubber bullets and water cannon.
As Mahmoud Darwish once described, the Nakba is “an extended present that promises to continue in the future.” While Abbas and his Israeli and Palestinian associates have succeeded in temporarily quieting dissent, they will never be able to erase or eradicate the injustices wrought upon Palestinians or the memories of their cruel history of dispossession. In a bittersweet, yet marvelous way the Palestinian hunger strikers have demonstrated this reality, while feeding a large wave of nonviolent protest all over the Occupied Territories.
In a letter asking for forgiveness for his continued strike and the risks it posed to his life, Thaer Halahleh wrote his young daughter, who had been born two weeks after he was imprisoned two years ago and whom he had never seen, in words that capture the hunger strikers’ resilience and determination to peacefully oppose continued oppression:
“It is not your fault; this is our destiny as Palestinian people to have our lives and the lives of our children taken away from us, to be apart from each other and to have a miserable life. Nothing is complete in our lives because of this unjust occupation that is lurking on every corner of our lives turning it into eeriness, a continuous pursuit and torture.
[…] Lamar my love: I know that you are not to be blamed and that you don’t yet understand why your father is going through this battle of hunger strike for the 75th day, but when you grow up you will understand that the battle of freedom is the battle of going back to you, so that I can never be taken away from you again or to be deprived of your smile or seeing you, so that the occupier will never kidnap me again from you.
[…] When you grow up you will understand how injustice was brought upon your father and upon thousands of Palestinians whom the occupation has put in prisons and jail cells, shattering their lives and future for no reason other then their pursuit of freedom, dignity and independence. You will know that your father did not tolerate injustice and submission, and that he would never accept insult and compromise, and that he is going through a hunger strike to protest against the Jewish state that wants to turn us into humiliated slaves without any rights or patriotic dignity.”