The Battle of the Empty Intestines: Palestinian Hunger Strikes

Could the human body turn into a battlefield? How could a weak and an exhausted body carry out the protest manifestations of an occupied population

After making a life-threatening decision to go on a hunger strike in an Israeli prison, Palestinian prisoners refrain from eating all varieties of food with the exception of water and a pinch of salt. The hunger pangs and stomach cramps disappear after the first three days. Then, day-by-day, their bodies start to break the muscle tissues in order to be able to survive the coming long days. They start experiencing a loss of their thirst sensation and feel a tingling cold in every little nerve ending in their body. By the third week, it becomes more difficult to get up on their feet and form a straight posture. The feeling of lightheadedness sinks toward causing chronic pain and migraines whenever they move their eyeballs left or right, while trying hard to keep their eyes open. Subsequently, past their forty days of fasting, death is more likely to occur due to heart failure and cardiovascular collapse. This act of self-starvation is considered one of the ultimate acts of protest. To leave oneself nearly starved to death on your oppressor’s doorstep attains the goal of drawing attention to a grievance or political aim. It evinces a resolute devotion to a definite cause and a set of principles. To grasp a belief so firmly as to tolerate such an agonizing fate is almost beyond comprehension. However, the purpose of a hunger strike goes far beyond the bodies of those who initiate them, it expands to turn the body into a battlefield and carry out the protest manifestations of an occupied population.

Palestinian Political Prisoners

Since the start of Israeli occupation in 1967, many Palestinians have been detained by the Israeli military in the occupied territories of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. For many Palestinians, the experience of being a prisoner in an Israeli jail is a brutal reality that they face on a daily basis. Since 1967, more than 800,000 Palestinians have been the targets of Israeli detention. As of 1 July 2015, the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, a Palestinian

NGO dedicated to prisoners’ rights, has reported the numbers of Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli custody, detention, and interrogation centers as following: 

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PLC (Palestinian Legislative Council). 

The majority of Palestinian political prisoners are detained under charges of “security offenses” as defined by the Israeli Military Orders. An Israeli Military Order is a general order issued by an Israeli military commander applying to the Occupied Territories only. They have the force of law even though they lack any democratic supervision or prior parliamentary approval. Thus, the enforcement of these orders is subject to military courts instead of civil courts. Israeli Military Orders exploit a vague and broad definition of “security” to control, inter alia, the political expression and freedom of Palestinians. Many of these Orders restrict Palestinians’ political life in the Occupied Territories. For example, Military Order 101 indicates that it is “forbidden to conduct a protest march or meeting (grouping of ten or more where the subject concerns or is related to politics) without permission from the Military Commander.” Similarly, Military Order 938  dictates that bearing the flag of an organization deemed hostile by Israel or listening to a nationalist song constitute “hostile action” that may be prosecuted.  Military Orders 101 and 938 represent Israel’s definition of what is labeled as a “security threat” or a “hostile action”.

Many Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organizations have closely documented the Israeli Military Court system’s insufficiency in providing Palestinians with minimum guarantees of due process. To begin with, one of the main defects of the system includes its failure to meet the standards required by Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights; which calls for a “fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law.”

As Palestinians political prisoners are put on trail in Israeli military tribunals, they face a system of judges and prosecutors who are all appointed by the Israeli military commander – the same individual who is also empowered to make changes to Israeli military orders.  In addition, Palestinian prisoners often face torture and are subjected to atrocious and degrading treatment throughout their interrogation or detention. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) reported in 2013 that Israeli forces mistreated Palestinian children, including torture of those in custody and along with using them as human shields. “Palestinian children arrested by [Israeli] military and police are systematically subject to degrading treatment, and often to acts of torture, are interrogated in Hebrew, a language they did not understand, and sigh confessions in Hebrew in order to be released,” the report stated. Moreover, lawyers are hindered from the opportunity to properly represent the accused. According to Addameer Prisoners’ Support and Human Rights Association, it takes an average of 30 to 45 days before a lawyer is able to meet his or her client due to a range of bureaucratic difficulties placed by the Israeli authorities. Finally, Palestinians can be detained in Israeli jails for 90 days without charge with the ability of the Israeli authorities extending the detention period by another 90 days.

Administrative Detention

Administrative detention is a systematic practice that allows the Israeli military to hold Palestinian detainees indefinitely without charge, trial or sentence. This practice authorizes the Israeli army to issue administrative detention orders against Palestinians on the basis of Military Order 1651 (Art. 285). This order allows military commanders to hold an individual for indefinitely renewable six-months detention if they have “reasonable grounds to presume that the security of the area or public security require the detention.” International law requires that administrative detention be exercised only in exceptive cases when it is the only possible means available to prevent any potential danger. Nevertheless, the practice of administrative detention (a relic of the British Mandate akin to many other Israeli laws inherited from a history of British imperialism) by Israeli authorities is routinely exercised. Thousands of Palestinians have been held in Israeli custody for extended periods of time, sometimes years, without even being informed of the reason for their detention.

The Battle of the Empty Intestines: Palestinian Hunger Strikes

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The first Palestinian hunger strike in an Israeli jails took place in the Lod (Lyd) Prison in 1969 and lasted for three days. The Palestinian detainees went on a hunger strike to protest against the mistreatment (including physical attacks), humiliation, and the harsh living conditions that the majority of the political prisoners had encountered. Although it lasted for three days, it sparked a movement that left its mark on Palestinian history as “The Battle of Empty Intestines.” Since then, hunger strikes have become a tool for Palestinian prisoners toward raising attention for their struggle. Strikes are often initiated after Israeli authorities fail to come to an agreement with the Prisoners Committees.

The most prominent demands made by Palestinian prisoners include an end to the cruel conditions and abuse they endure, the resumption of family visits that Israel has denied, and the end of administrative detention. The attention that hunger strikes have drawn internationally and domestically are invaluable. Victorious hunger strikes have forced the Israeli prison authorities to accept some strikers’ demands, such as the release of political prisoners who have been in administrative detention for over a decade. Many Palestinian and international activists and bloggers have established many solidarity campaigns and movements, such as the use of the hashtags #tweepstrike and #HS4Palestine to generate more awareness.

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Starved for Freedom: The Story of Khader Adnan

Khader Adnan was born in Arraba Village near Jenin on the 24th March 1978.  Adnan is a father of two daughters and three sons; he holds a Master’s in Economics from Birzeit University, and is a member of Islamic Jihad. Adnan recently ended his fourth hunger strike, which he started after his 10th arrest without charges or trial. He has spent cumulatively more than six years in Israeli prisons, mostly under the system of administrative detention and without being presented with any legal evidence in court to support the security authorities’ suspicions. Adnan became a Palestinian icon when he conducted the longest hunger strike in Israel’s history to protest his continuous arrest without trial: 66 days.

On April 17, 2012, Adnan was released in the wake of a prolonged strike as fears emerged that he would die. Arrested again on July 8, 2014, Adnan was placed in administrative detention. Due to the repeated extensions of his detention, Adnan started his fourth hunger strike on May 7, 2015. Fifty-five days into his hunger strike, Israel agreed to release him on 12 July.

One day later, on July 13, Adnan was arrested in Jerusalem. The apparent pretext for arrest was traveling to Jerusalem without an Israeli-issued permit pass. He was subsequently released. 

Read more: Israel: A Carceral State by Rashid I. Khalidi

Article by Palestine Studies intern Ghadeer Awwad.