Starving for freedom: The role of hunger strikes in the Palestinian struggle
Last week, after 141 days without food, Hisham Abu Hawash, a Palestinian construction worker from the West Bank, ended his hunger strike in protest of his imprisonment by the Israeli regime. Abu Hawash had been arrested by Israeli forces in October 2020 and was placed under administrative detention, a mechanism commonly used to incarcerate Palestinians for indefinite periods of time without a charge or a trial.
Under administrative detention, there is no time limit on how long a prisoner can remain in custody, and the “evidence” on which the arrest is based is never disclosed. Inherited from the British Mandate in Palestine, the Israeli regime often claims it uses this mechanism in a preventative way, in order to avert “future offences”. Administrative detention orders in Israel last for a maximum of six months, but can be renewed indefinitely.
Human rights organisations and international bodies around the world have decried Israel’s practice of administrative detention as illegal and unjust. UN Special Rapporteur on the Palestinian territories Michael Lynk has called the practice “an anathema in any democratic society that follows the rule of law”.
According to the prisoner support NGO Addameer, there are currently 500 Palestinian political prisoners placed under administrative detention in Israeli prisons, many of which have been incarcerated for years.
Yet after nearly five months of hunger strike (and one of the longest strikes in Palestinian history) the Israeli regime was pressured to agree upon a release deal. Abu Hawash’s detention will not be renewed, and he is now due to be released in February.
Palestinians everywhere celebrated this as a small victory in an otherwise ongoing and relentless onslaught of daily incarcerations. Abu Hawash’s resistance and perseverance follows a long history of both collective and individual hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners.
The longest Palestinian hunger strike took place between August 2012 and April 2013, when Samer Issawi refused food for 266 days before reaching a deal with the Israeli regime. His case drew global attention, and in the face of international pressure and his rapidly deteriorating health, Israel was forced to release him.
Hunger strikes have also been used as tools of collective action. In 2017, thousands of Palestinian political prisoners refused food for weeks on end all at the same time demanding basic rights. In some cases, these mass strikes have resulted in deals being reached to improve detention conditions, such as increasing family visitations and better medical services.