In faraway, frozen Finland – otherwise known as the infirmary of Ramle Prison – the lives of four detainees who have been on a hunger strike for at least 60 days hang in the balance. Nearly 2,000 inmates in the Nafha, Ashkelon, Gilboa and other prisons around Israel have been on hunger strike for two weeks. The very fact of their decision to refuse food and their willingness to risk being punished by the authorities stands as a reminder of their humanity.
The Israel Prison Service does not have to make much of an effort to conceal this mass action from Israeli eyes. The great majority of Israelis label all incarcerated Palestinians as conscienceless murderers or common terrorists, at the least. They have little interest in acts of personal or collective courage on the part of Palestinian detainees that serve as reminders that they are human beings.
Administrative detainees have been held without trial for years under emergency regulations inspired by the British Mandate. It’s not important. Hundreds of prisoners from the Gaza Strip haven’t seen their families for six or more years. Why should anyone care?
When Gilad Shalit was in captivity in Gaza, the cancelation of visits for Gazan prisoners in Israel was presented as “proportionate pressure.” After his release, Israelis don’t care that this sort of proportionality goes on, and that family visits were not restored. So what? Why should we care that Palestinians are kept in isolation for years on end and barred from seeing their families for three, five or 10 years? Any normal prison administration would welcome prisoners’ demand to go back to studying through the Open University. Studies reduce stress and tension levels in prison. But the name of the game here is submission.
Palestinian prisoners are given names and faces in the Israeli news media only if they can demonstrate their “contemptibility.” Their names and faces are not mentioned in the context of their personal, family and national history for more than 60 years: expulsion, exile, destruction of their homes, the injury and killing of friends and family members by Israeli soldiers, or trifles such as beatings by soldiers or expropriation of their land by government officials.
Palestinian prisoners are mentioned in terms of the number of life sentences they are serving. But Israel’s revered army generals, retired and on active duty, are responsible for killing many more Palestinian (and Lebanese ) civilians than the number of Israeli civilians killed by the Palestinian prisoners.
History – praise be to Clio, the Greek muse of history – is no longer written only by the victors. But the conquerors still decide who is the hero, who is the soldier who acts as the judge and who is the defendant who is declared a terrorist even before he is convicted. The Palestinians are not recognized as prisoners of war whose weapons are less advanced, less sophisticated than those of their jailers.
Israelis are not satisfied with the various measures to worsen their prison conditions. When it comes to Palestinians, punishment is not enough. Prison must also be never-ending revenge that extends what Israel tries to do outside its walls as well: to break up the collective, to weaken the individual, to deter others from resistance to the foreign regime.
The hunger strike is, in effect, a protest against these goals. Not all of the Palestinian prisoners have joined it. In prison, as outside of it, Palestinian political and social cohesion has declined, and many of the inmates lack the cultural and social awareness of their predecessors. Nevertheless, the hunger strike underlines the fundamentally political nature of the collective of Palestinians incarcerated in Israel.
Amira Hass is the author of Drinking the Sea at Gaza. She writes for Ha’aretz, where this column originally appeared.