In the Palestinian hunger strike, politics is only half the story

Marwan Barghouti may win big from the mass fast, but an Israeli criminologist argues Israel could benefit from giving at least one of his demands consideration

Dov Lieber is a former Times of Israel Arab affairs correspondent.

Palestinians protest in solidarity with security prisoners on a hunger strike in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on April 26, 2017. (AFP Photo/Musa Al Shaer)
Palestinians protest in solidarity with security prisoners on a hunger strike in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on April 26, 2017. (AFP Photo/Musa Al Shaer)

In prisons across the State of Israel, about a thousand Palestinian men are starving themselves to death, their only daily source of sustenance a glass of salt water. Over two weeks into their hunger strike, their bodies are beginning to eat away at themselves, converting muscle into sugar.

The prevailing stance among Israeli political analysts, as well as Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, is that these men are pawns in a game. The players, the theory goes, are Marwan Barghouti, the hunger strike’s leader, a convicted terror chief who is serving five life sentences for the murder of Israelis during the Second Intifada, and the elite of the Palestinian Authority’s ruling Fatah party.

In December, Barghouti followed up years of opinion polls that showed him to be the most popular figure in Palestinian society when he secured the largest number of votes in the Fatah party’s seventh congress.

But in February, when the party’s elite gathered to vote on leadership roles — most importantly Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s first-ever deputy — Barghouti was surprisingly left off the list. A little over a month later, he managed to catapult himself into the public eye by organizing the strike, showing that even from a prison cell, he can command the attention and respect of the Palestinian people.

Barghouti, of course, did not invent Palestinian hunger strikes, and his 27 demands — including expanded visitation rights and better access to public phones and higher education — are very similar to the demands of previous strikers. What is new is the sheer size of the strike. According to the PA’s Prisoner Affairs Ministry, there are more than 1,500 who are still refusing food. Israel’s Prison Service (IPS) said the number of strikers started at 1,200, and has since fallen to 900.

A man holds a photo of Marwan Barghouti calling for his release during a rally supporting Palestinian prisoners detained in Israeli jails in the West Bank city of Hebron on April 17, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / HAZEM BADER)
A man holds a photo of Marwan Barghouti calling for his release during a rally supporting Palestinian prisoners detained in Israeli jails in the West Bank city of Hebron on April 17, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / HAZEM BADER)

There seems to be a consensus among Palestinians, that, whether or not the strike is ultimately about internal political jockeying, Barghouti is correct in his demands, and that it is worth risking death — and all the violence such death’s could engender — to force Israel to change the way it treats its Palestinian prisoners.

From the Israeli point of view, is there any merit to the strikers’ demands? Or is the strike only a political campaign, a vehicle for Barghouti to score points on Israel’s back and put pressure on the Palestinian leadership?

Other prisoners can ‘only dream’ of such treatment

In a report published last last week, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli Defense Ministry agency responsible for administering civilian affairs in the West Bank and the crossings with Gaza, argued that Palestinian security prisoners are treated better than other prisoners anywhere in the region and even in most Western countries.

According to COGAT, the Israel Prisons Service “cares, protects the rights, and respects prisoners in Israeli jails. But, apparently, for those security prisoners on strike, it is not enough.”

The report scoffed at the demand for public telephones in prison wings and the right to receive a college education, implying they were not critical. It said the prisoners enjoy basic rights such as meetings with attorneys, medical treatment, and freedom to practice their religion, along with basic living conditions such as hot water, sanitation, proper ventilation and electric infrastructure.

Illustrative photo of a prisoner making a phone call at the Israeli Prison Service, Gilboa Prison, February 28, 2013. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)
Illustrative photo of a prisoner making a phone call at the Israeli Prison Service, Gilboa Prison, February 28, 2013. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

The report also noted the Palestinian inmates receive “regular visits” from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The ICRC confirmed to The Times of Israel that it was able to visit hundreds of hunger strikes in recent days, but would not discuss Israel’s treatment of Palestinian prisoners, saying it needed to maintain neutrality.

In addition to the rights the Palestinian prisoners receive, COGAT’s report listed benefits, including access to newspapers, the ability to send and receive letters and read and keep books, and a canteen, run by the inmates.

There are also television watching hours and electrical appliances such as kettles and mosquito killers.

The report highlights the fact that around one-third of the prisoners receive these conditions despite serving out sentences for “being directly responsible for the murder of Israelis.”

“Anyone who knows the Israeli prison system knows that the conditions of security prisoners meet a very high standard. Prisoners in the Palestinian Authority, Gaza, and even in the Western world, can only dream of the benefits that prisoners in Israel receive,” the report asserted.

‘If Israel wants to say it’s a democratic country, it must act like one’

But Yamen Zidan, an attorney representing the Palestinian prisoners’ committee, argued that to compare Israel to the West Bank, Gaza or anywhere else was “running away from the issue.”

“If Israel wants to say it’s a democratic country, it must act like one,” he said, pointing at Israel’s much-criticized policy regarding family visitation rights.

According to Israeli law, security prisoners are entitled to two visits a month. However, Zidan noted, because Palestinian prisoners are held in Israel, families must spend many hours on the road and waiting at border crossings, in many cases “leaving Ramallah at 3:30 a.m. for a 10 a.m. visit.”

Hence the demand for visits to be increased from 45 minutes to an hour and a half, he said — to make up for the long travel time and aggravation, which can discourage families from visiting as often as the law allows. He said that is why prisoners are also fighting to make things easier for their visiting family members, including demanding facilities for the comfort of the visitors at the prisons’ gates.

Additionally, there is the issue of relatives or whole families of prisoners being prevented entrance into Israel due to security concerns. Zidan said he did not know exactly how many prisoners were prevented from seeing family members, but was confident the problem was shared by over 500 of the 6,500 or so Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails.

Ofer prison near Ramallah. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Ofer prison near Ramallah. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

These issues are compounded in the case of Gazan prisoners, he said, whose families are allowed to visit only once every two months — if they obtain an entry permit.

Asked whether Israel has a right to prevent the entry of people it considers dangerous to its citizens, he countered by pointing out that families who visit Palestinian prisoners undergo security checks before crossing into Israel, and noted their buses are accompanied by police directly to the prison.

“The visiting families do not pose any security threat,” he said.

Critics of Israeli policy, including Barghouti, have highlighted the fact that transferring prisoners from occupied territory into the state proper is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, of which Israel is a signatory. Even the Red Cross, which has a good working relationship with the Israeli prison service, has issued a rare public rebuke of Israel for violating the convention.

Israel argues that it is not an occupying power in the West Bank, because the land between the Green Line and the Jordan River is “disputed territory” that is subject to ongoing negotiations.

It isn’t that the Palestinian prisoners are asking Israel to build prisons in the West Bank. These, according to Zidan, would contradict the Palestinian national movement’s aspirations to end Israeli construction beyond the Green Line.

Rather he argued, it was Israel’s job to solve the problem of how to facilitate the rights of prisoners to be visited by their families. He pointed to Ofer Prison, just outside Ramallah, as an example for a facility that enables relatively easy access, much more so than prisons located in remote areas of Israel.

Beyond the issue of visiting rights, Zidan said the demands are meant to give the Palestinians the human treatment allotted to Israeli prisoners.

“How does it hurt Israel?” he asked, if the prisoners are given simple privileges that are important to them, such as a few additional television channels.

“Rather than operating according to laws, the IPS operates according to outside political considerations,” he claimed, accusing successive governments run by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of gradually gnawing away at the privileges of security prisoners.

Then there is the one demand that is not aimed at Israel: that the International Committee of the Red Cross return to its policy of facilitating two family visits a month. Last year, the ICRC scaled the number back to only once a month because not enough family members were showing up for second visits to justify the costs.

‘Israel needs to think in the long run’

Sagit Yehushua, an Israeli criminologist who interviewed 18 terrorist leaders in Israeli jails and observed the IPS system between 2005 and 2006, did not come away from her experiences feeling that security prisoners were ill-treated. She did argue, however, that Israel was harming its own interests by curbing certain privileges, especially education.

Israeli criminologist Sagit Yehoshua (photo credit: courtesy)
Israeli criminologist Sagit Yehushua (photo credit: courtesy)

“They do get everything they are supposed to receive according to the law — no more and and no less,” she said, acknowledging her bias as an Israeli.

“The IPS are not dehumanizing,” she added.

Yehushua, who received a PhD from King’s College London, said “credit” was due to the IPS for how it manages security prisoners.

“We don’t hear about prison riots — there is a lot of respect between management and the prisoners,” Yehushua said.

“I do think the IPS is doing its best so people can see their families,” she added. If a long time has passed, “they will try to find a way for people to be as satisfied if possible.”

And if there is no security risk, she said, the IPS will allow prisoners to speak to their families by phone.

One of the major demands of the strikers is to end what they say is “medical negligence.” The physicians in prisoners are half-jokingly called “Acamol doctors,” after the generic pain- and fever-reducing drug they allegedly prescribe for a majority of ailments.

Zidan said prisoners get basic medical attention, but it’s not enough: Some don’t get the right care, or it comes too late. Yehushua said that while she could not speak with confidence about the level of medical care, the issue never came up in her extensive interviews with prisoners.

An ambulance exits the Ayalon Prison in Ramle (photo credit: Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
An ambulance exits the Ayalon Prison in Ramle (photo credit: Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Unlike other prisoners worldwide, in Israel the security prisoners are treated differently from criminals, and are physically separated. The policy is aimed at keeping inmates safe, but it has the side effect of turning security prisoners into a distinct community. The security prisoners thus enjoy the privilege of having democratically elected spokespeople represent them to prison management, unlike criminals, who each must represent themselves.

However, there are privileges that only criminals have access to, including freedom of movement within the prison, television channels, public phones and — most importantly, in Yehushua’s opinion — de-radicalization programs.

Regular de-radicalization programs are not an option because the security prisoners do not recognize the prison service and refuse to participate. But Yehushua made the case that the privilege to attain university degrees in prison, which was taken away in 2011, was a de-radicalizing program of sorts.

“They learned Hebrew, they learned about Israeli society, the Jewish people and its history,” when they studied for degrees in Israel. “By not giving them an education, we are ruining things for ourselves. They won’t necessarily de-radicalize, but they understand us better and learn how to communicate with us,” she said.

The reinstatement of the degree program is one of the strikers’ key demands.

Asked if she thought politics gets in the way of sensible prison policy, she replied, “Definitely,” and said Israel needed a more holistic approach that would give security prisoners the feeling they are being treated fairly and humanely.

“It’s easy to think about all the aspects of revenge. We need to think clearly about what benefits us — not just what makes us feel better,” Yehushua said.

“If there are issues of security, we need to find humanitarian ways to deal with them. If a person will see his family, he will feel grateful. He will begin to see us not only as the occupier, but also in a more human way,” she added. “I don’t care about right-wing or left-wing — I really don’t — I just think we need to think outside of the box.”

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