Are They Just Waiting for Samer Issawi to Die?


Samer Issawi has lived for 33 years, 1 month, and 27 days. I hope he lives another day.

He has been on a hunger strike now for six and a half months. Gandhis’ longest hunger strike was 21 days.

The IRA’s Bobby Sands and nine other Irish hunger strikers died in 1981 after strikes lasting from 46 to 73 days.

Issawi’s internal organs are starting to shut down, he can no longer walk, he is reportedly suffering loss of vision and vomiting blood, it is difficult for him talk, and he is increasingly near death. He has lost over half his body weight.

One of the main ideas behind such nonviolent resistance is that world awareness will bring pressure on behalf of the sufferer.

Yet, U.S. news outlets are not covering Issawi’s hunger strike. It appears that the Associated Press has not run a single news story on Issawi’s strike and refuses to answer queries on the subject.

AP’s lack of reporting on the situation is even more inexplicable given that there has been an international campaign on Issawi’s behalf.

There have been banner drops in Washington, D.C, Chicago, Cleveland, Austin, and other parts of the world; demonstrations and vigils in numerous cities; and Issawi’s plight has made it onto Twitter’s world-trending list at least four times this month.

The alleged “crime” for which Issawi is being imprisoned and may die – there has been no trial – is for having allegedly traveled outside Jerusalem. Issawi is one of the Palestinian prisoners released in a prisoner exchange in 2011, and such movement, Israel says, violated the terms of that release. (It is unclear whether Israel has formally charged Issawi.)

However, Issawi supporters point out that Issawi’s “travel” was to an area near Hizma, and Israel does not appear to dispute this, bringing into question Israel’s claimed reason for incarcerating him: Hizma is within Jerusalem’s municipal borders.

Israeli is holding Issawi under “administrative detention,” a system by which Israel holds Palestinian men, women, and even children for as long as the Israeli government wishes without trials or charges; sometimes for decades. Since 2000 Israel has reportedly issued 20,000 such detention orders.

In response to Issawi’s hunger strike, Israel has begun punishing his family. Israel arrested his sister for a period and reportedly cut off water to her house. In early July the Israeli army demolished his brother’s home.

It is difficult to think that if an Israeli soldier were held by Palestinians that the Associated Press would not run a single story about it. (AP ran many dozens of stories on Israeli tank gunner Gilad Shalit when he was held in Gaza.)

It is even more difficult to imagine that if an Israeli held by Palestinians (none are) had been on a hunger strike – let alone one that had lasted months and put him near death – the person would not have been the subject of a single AP report.

Moreover, Issawi is just one of a multitude of Palestinian hunger strikers, almost all ignored by U.S. media. Another, Ayman Sharawna, whose fast was interrupted for a short period, has been on a strike that, in total, is even longer that Issawi’s.

Amnesty International has also been inexplicably negligent.

I have just been informed that Amnesty International plans to issue an announcement about Issawi today. If it does so, this will be its first one on Issawi. In fact, during a hunger strike that lasted over six months, queries to Amnesty and searches of both the American and British websites, have turned up only one mention of him – in the last paragraph of an alert about other prisoners posted on the British site. It is not on the U.S. site.

Phone calls and emails over the past week to Amnesty’s Washington DC, New York, and London offices failed to elicit any information on Issawi or Amnesty’s decision not to alert the public to his situation. (Finally, unable to obtain a response from Amnesty, a few days ago I posted their lack of coverage on Facebook.)

While pro-Israel groups constantly attack Amnesty for insufficiently taking the Israeli line, in reality Amnesty’s record on the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan is often significantly at odds with the organization’s work on behalf of prisoners and human rights in other areas.

There have been analyses and objections to Amnesty actions that appeared to, in the words of one article, “shill for Mideast Wars.” Its executive director Suzanne Nossel spoke in favor of what she termed “hard force,” e.g. wars.

Nossel emphasized that at the top of Amnesty’s list was “defense of Israel,” despite Israel’s long list of violent aggression, ethnic cleansing, and human rights violations. Nossel blasted the UN report on Gaza’s 2008-9 massacre in Gaza as “not supported by facts,” despite massive evidence both in that report and and many others that its statements about Israel were quite accurate, if not slightly tilted toward Israel.

A lengthy article in CounterPunch examined Amnesty’s emphasis (and inaccurate coverage) on the Pussy Riot issue, and compared this to Amnesty’s lack of coverage on the incarceration of whistle blower Julian Assange and on other significant cases.

A 1988 analysis on human rights organizations’ work on Israel-Palestine found a number of shortcomings in Amnesty’s work, and in January 2012 Dutch-English writer Paul de Rooij complained of Amnesty’s “double standards” on Palestinian human rights.

In an email exchange with Malcolm Smart, Director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, de Rooij wrote that Amnesty’s “unwillingness to publish lists” of Palestinian Prisoners of Conscience and the extreme rarity of applying this designation to Palestinian prisoners “indicate that Palestinians can’t expect much from Amnesty International.”

De Rooij continued: “The brutal treatment and dispossession of Palestinians has been going on for decades; the situation is chronic and it has been systematic. But check for yourself in Amnesty’s reports or press releases: when was the last time that AI unambiguously indicated that Israeli actions amounted to crimes against humanity?”

De Rooij answered his own question: “You can count such instances with less than half the fingers on your hand.”

Susanne Nossel left Amnesty in January of this year and her replacement has not yet been chosen, so it is possible that its actions will change.

In the meantime, Samer Issawi’s life seems to be hanging by a thread.

Since Americans give Israel over $8 million per day, our tax money is helping to fund Israel’s actions. Those who wish to prevent at least one tragic death may wish to make their opinion known to the U.S. State Department (202-663-1848) and Associated Press (212.621.1500).

The name is also sometimes given as Samer Al-Issawi or Al-Eesawy. 

Alison Weir is executive director of If Americans Knew and president of the Council for the National Interest. She can be reached at contact@ifamericansknew.org.

Alison Weir is executive director of  If Americans Knew and president of the Council for the National Interest. An excerpt of her book was published in the March 21-23, 2014 issue of CounterPunch. Upcoming book talks can be seen on the book’s website.

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