Palestinian journalist and author Mohammed al-Qeeq, who is being held without trial in Israel, has been on a hunger strike since Nov. 25. Palestinian prisoners have long engaged in this tactic of resistance. For example, in 2012, thousands of detained Palestinians staged hunger strikes opposing isolation, solitary confinement and the denial of family visits. Individual and collective hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners date to at least the 1960s.
Approximately 500 Palestinians are currently held in administrative detention. Dozens of them have engaged in hunger strikes this year. In September, Israeli military forces rearrested Palestinian lawyer Muhammad Allan shortly after his release from the hospital, where he was treated for severe physical effects, including brain damage, from a 65-day hunger strike.
Allan, 31, was held without charge or trial under an administrative detention order, a colonial-era practice of indefinitely detaining Palestinian activists on the basis of secret evidence. (The British introduced administrative detention orders in Palestine in the early 20th century.) The order is renewable, and many are renewed multiple times, for up to six months.
On Aug. 20 a number of administrative detainees launched a collective hunger strike campaign known as the Battle of Breaking the Chains. Within days, some were removed from their prison cells and sent to solitary confinement. Several of them were denied access to cold water and medication and had their personal belongings — including books, clothes and blankets — confiscated. Their strike lasted for more than 40 days.
The hunger strikers were threatened with force-feeding, a cruel and inhumane practice legalized in July under Israel’s Law to Prevent Harm Caused by Hunger Strikers. The bill’s name says it all: Despite the official rhetoric about saving lives, the bill aims to protect Israel’s image against harm by reports of Palestinian prisoners protesting the injustices of their confinement. Gilad Erdan, Israel’s Internal Security Minister and a key supporter of the bill, referred to the hunger strikes as “a new type of suicide terrorist attack.”
The law has been met with widespread international condemnation. But Israel is hardly alone in its stance. It mirrors its ally the United States, which force-feeds detainees at the Guantánamo Bay detention center in Cuba, where at least 107 people are still held without charge or trial, some for nearly 14 years.
The U.S. Department of Justice continues to oppose legal proceedings for the release of 36-year-old Yemeni prisoner Tariq Ba Odah, who was cleared for release from Guantánamo six years ago. As with Erdan, U.S. authorities insist that “transferring Ba Odah could create an incentive for future hunger strikes.” (Ba Odah stopped eating solid food in 2007. He now weighs only 75 pounds and has been force-fed through a painful, physically and psychologically damaging nasogastric tube. His lawyers fear that he may die of starvation.)
The International Committee of the Red Cross stresses that force-feeding undermines prisoners’ dignity and their rights to choose. The World Medical Association (WMA) has also rejected force-feeding, saying the involuntary feeding of detainees is “unjustifiable” and ethically unacceptable.
“Even if intended to benefit, feeding accompanied by threats, coercion, force or use of physical restraints is a form of inhuman and degrading treatment,” according to the WMA. “Equally unacceptable is the forced feeding of some detainees in order to intimidate or coerce other hunger strikers to stop fasting.”
The challenge now is not only to stop the Israeli and US policies of force-feeding but also to end the systematic arbitrary detention that involuntary feeding sustains.
The WMA called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to rescind the law, which it characterized as “violent, very painful and absolutely in opposition to the principle of individual autonomy.” The WMA added that the law amounts to torture.
However, amid a strong opposition from the Israeli Medical Association, in August, Israeli military prosecutors revealed their plan to force-feed Allan, and even moved him to several medical centers looking for health workers willing to intubate and forcibly feed him. “The state of Israel can’t allow itself to be held hostage to hunger strikes by prisoners because today it’s one prisoner and tomorrow it will be others,” Zeev Elkin, the minister of immigration and absorption, told Israel’s Channel 10 news as Allan lay in a coma. “Today it’s a prisoner in administrative detention, and tomorrow it will be someone who was sentenced to jail after a fair trial.”
Some tried to block agreements on Allan’s release. Erdan said it “would be a prize for the hunger strike he initiated and may lead to mass hunger strikes among the security detainees after they discover a new tool with which to extort the state of Israel.” Allan has since been released.
Under international human rights and humanitarian law, administrative detention may be used only on a case-by-case basis for security reasons. Israel’s unjustified and systematic use of the method violates the Geneva Conventions and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
It is part of Israeli apartheid and colonialism, which features mass imprisonment and a whopping 99.74 percent conviction rate of Palestinians by Israeli military courts, land confiscation, home demolitions and extreme violence. Israel does not want to end its administrative detention because it serves as an intimidation tactic to make the Palestinian community think resistance is impossible.
The United States is Israel’s closest military and political ally, providing more than $3 billion in annual military aid. The two countries employ similar abusive prison practices. The continued detention of 107 people at the Guantánamo Bay prison violates international treaties forbidding arbitrary detention.
Israel’s rejection of the International Criminal Court’s investigation into its leaders and military personnel parallels the United States’ attempts to provide impunity for its alleged war crimes in Iraq and in the “war on terrorism.”
Force-feeding happens not only in Israel and at the Guantánamo Bay prison. On Dec. 8, a U.S. federal judge authorized the force-feeding of an inmate on a hunger strike at an immigrant detention facility in Alabama. Similarly, in 2013 a U.S. court approved the force-feeding of hunger-striking prisoners in California.
In March immigrants at detention centers in Georgia, Alabama, Colorado, Florida and several other states launched a hunger strike campaign to protest their inhumane treatment. Rather than address their concerns, Barack Obama’s administration and corporate prison operators responded with sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, transfers to other facilities and threats of force-feeding.
The challenge now is not only to stop the Israeli and U.S. policies of force-feeding but also to end the systematic arbitrary detention that involuntary feeding sustains. This is why so many people have put their lives and bodies on the line — such as Ba Odah, who has undergone force-feeding daily for eight years — to expose the systems of unjust incarceration that have stolen years from their lives.