Palestinian society, like any other human community, is imbued with a great many ideological currents and political sensibilities. and thus its members never think in lockstep. But one issue they all seem to be consistently united on, and that never fails to tug at their heartstrings, is the fate of the 6,500 political prisoners held in Israeli jails.
Earlier this week 1,000 of these folks went on a hunger strike, a form of non-violent resistance in which prisoners fast - to death, if need be - as an act of political protest, or to achieve more humane conditions behind bars. In this case the demands are wrenching in their modesty: more flexible visitation rights for family members, educational options, and more access to news periodicals, books and public phones.
Hunger strikes are no joke. They have been known to have lethal consequences. Medical literature paints a dreadful picture of the progressive deterioration of a determined striker’s body, which in the first days of the strike continues to use energy from glucose, the medical term for simple sugar. After that, the liver starts processing body fat. And when that in turn is depleted, the body enters a “starvation mode,” where the caloric intake of an organism, needed to maintain life, is exhausted. At this point, we are told, the body begins to devour the muscles and vital organs, and loss of bone becomes critical and life-threatening.
All of which goes to affirm the notion that when a man dies, his life ends, but when a martyr dies, his life begins.Fawaz Turki
A prisoner on a hunger strike can die within six to ten weeks. This happened in 1981 to ten hunger strikers incarcerated in Northern Ireland, in that now famous showdown between republican political prisoners and then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Among the prisoners - who died within 46 to 73 days of each other - was the iconic and now famous Irish patriot Bobby Sands, whose funeral was attended by 100,000 people. His act of defiance, coming at the cost of his life, galvanized Irish nationalist politics and was the driving force that later enabled Sinn Fein to become a mainstream political party.
When death makes a martyr
All of which goes to affirm the notion that when a man dies, his life ends, but when a martyr dies, his life begins.
Yes, it’s easy for a prisoner on a hunger strike to lose his life. It almost happened in 2015 to Muhammed Allan, a Palestinian political prisoner held without charges and without trial. Allan went on a 64-day hunger strike, during which he was at death’s door, having fallen unconscious and later placed into a medically induced coma. After he recovered somewhat - one never recovers fully from an experience like that - the occupiers’ Supreme Court ordered his release, but in act of vindictiveness the authorities re-arrested him less than a month later.
The plight of the thousands of their political prisoners in Israeli jails may, I say, tug at the Palestinian people’s heartstrings, but it also galls them at the gut: Who are these so-called Israelis incarcerating Palestinian patriots? How dare these latter-day settler-colonists come to Palestine and try its native sons in their foreign courts, dump them in their foreign jails, and subject them to their foreign laws?
You expect no one to believe you when you tell them that roughly 750,000 Palestinians, including minors as young as 12, have passed through these jails since the West Bank and Gaza were conquered and occupied in 1967. Almost every Palestinian has a relative, or has had a relative, in jail, or has been there himself. They all languished in that entity’s 17 Special Jails, amongst them 14 members of the Palestinian parliament, and hundreds of non-violent protesters whose only crime was agitating peacefully to stop the Israeli army and colonists from expropriating their land.
Prisoned for stone throwing
Others were caught just throwing stones. Under Military Order 1651, for example, a Palestinian caught throwing stones at “people or property” can face a ten-year jail sentence. In an article about the subject in August 2013, the Economist wrote:” Conviction rates for Palestinians in Israel’s military courts, where most politically motivated cases are heard, exceed 99 percent. So many are processed every day that there’s scant time to delve into detail, let alone study cases in advance. Military judges, working in makeshift courts, rely on the testimony of soldiers to secure convictions.”
From 2000 to 2009, the article added, 6,700 Palestinians between the ages of 12 and 18 were arrested. Of those imprisoned, “nearly all” were “brought to court in leg shackles and handcuffs.”
In a way, the experience of imprisonment is shared by all Palestinians, whether they are actually political prisoners behind bars or ordinary Palestinians living by the rule of the gun as an occupied people
“The occupation of our land and subjugation of our people have gone on for 50 long years, Mr President,” Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader should tell Donald Trump when he meets with him at the White House on May 3. “Surely it’s about time we gained our right to freedom, independence and statehood in our homeland, a right that no one in the international community, including the United States, disputes.”
Fawaz Turki is a Palestinian-American journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington, DC.