by James J. Zogby
One thousand five hundred Palestinian prisoners have been on a hunger strike for almost a week now. They are refusing sustenance in an effort to improve the deplorable conditions faced by the nearly 6,500 Palestinians who are currently imprisoned in Israel.
On the day before the strike began, the action’s leader, Marwan Barghouti, published an op-ed in the International New York Times. It was an elegantly written piece in which Barghouti laid out the conditions in Israel’s prisons and the demands of the strikers. These demands include: more regular family visits, better health care, an end to solitary confinement, and end to administrative detention (a practice in which Israel jails Palestinians for prolonged periods without charges or trial—there are currently 500 such detainees), and installing public telephones enabling prisoners to have monitored calls with their families.
Barghouti began his article noting that he has been in prison for 15 years during which time “I have been both a witness to and a victim of Israel’s illegal system of mass arrests and the ill-treatment of Palestinian prisoners.” He concluded his opening paragraph saying “After exhausting all other options, I decided there was no other choice but to resist these abuses by going on a hunger strike.”
As one of the co-founders of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, I have long been acquainted with Israel’s “justice system.” Since most Palestinians have been convicted based on confessions obtained under duress, international human rights organizations have condemned Israel’s violations of international law and the lack of due process afforded to prisoners. Over 80% of all arrested Palestinians have been refused the right to legal counsel until after they have been subjected to prolonged and often abusive interrogation. In his article, Barghouti describes these abuses that he and other prisoners have been forced to endure, noting that the equivalent of 40% of Palestine’s male population have been jailed by Israel.
The Israeli government’s response to the article and to the strike, itself, have been revealingly characteristic of their modus operandi.
Because the Times initially described Barghouti as a member of the Palestinian Parliament and a leader, Israel launched a campaign forcing the editors to change their description to note that Barghouti had been convicted of murder and membership in a terrorist organization.
What Israel did not mention was the fact that Barghouti’s arrest, trial, and conviction were denounced by the Swiss-based Inter-Parliamentary Union as being “a violation of international law” and having “failed to meet fair-trial standards.” The IPU concluded that “Barghouti’s guilt has not been established.”
But when Israel is on the war-path in an effort to discredit criticism, facts don’t matter. Instead they make do with bullying threats to force their target into submission. They called the op-ed “journalist terrorism;” accused the Times of “media terrorism;” called Barghouti’s piece “fake news” that was “full of lies.” Former Israeli Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, called for an investigation to see who at the Times was responsible for getting and publishing the article. One Knesset Member went so far as to suggest that Israel might close the Times‘ Israel bureau.
Israel also ratcheted up the rhetoric against Barghouti and the other strikers. Despite the fact that most of Palestinians are being held on political charges (and many are detainees who haven’t been charged with any crimes)—all were hysterically denounced as “loathsome murderers” and “dangerous terrorists”.
In the end, the Times relented and changed their description of Barghouti to meet Israel’s demands.
Reflecting on this Israeli bullying campaign, Haaretz‘s insightful columnist, Chemi Shalev termed the entire effort a “ritual of diversion and denial.” By focusing on the description of Barghouti and not the content of his piece, Israel was able to “accentuate the insignificant at the expense of the essence.” “First,” he wrote, “you manufacture righteous indignation over a minor fault…then you assault the newspaper…and cast doubt on its motives…In this way the Israeli public is absolved of the need to actually contend with the gist of the article…In this way, anyone who wants to address Barghouti’s claims…is seen as collaborating with a terrorist and enabling terror.”
As for the strikers, Israel promised a harsh response and no negotiations. Barghouti and other “ring leaders” have been placed under solitary confinement. One Israeli minister said that Barghouti should have been “executed,” while another said that Israel should treat their prisoners the way Hamas treats its captives. And while a law is being advanced to allow the government to force-feed prisoners, Foreign Minister Lieberman said that the government should be firm even if it means letting prisoners die. At the same time, a not so subtle media campaign has been launched to discredit Barghouti as a political opportunist who is only doing this to advance his political career and to sabotage the “peace process” (as if one actually exists).
What Israel will not acknowledge and is attempting to obfuscate is that their treatment of Palestinians is deplorable. Their 50 year long illegal occupation has driven a captive people to resist their systematic oppressive violence. In the process, Israel terms every Palestinian response “terrorism.” Whether throwing rocks at checkpoints, boycotting Israeli products or writing op-eds and going on a hunger strike—all become “terrorist” acts.
There are, to be sure, horrific acts of real terror that have been committed by Palestinians and these must be condemned and punished. But even here Israel is not blameless. Doesn’t bombing civilian targets and killing scores of civilians or systematically starving Gaza into submission qualify as terror? And doesn’t confiscating land, demolishing homes, and centuries-old olive orchards also fit the definition of terrorism?
At the root of all the violence is the persistence of an inhumane occupation and the evil that results from it.
What should be noted, however, is that like the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, a mass prisoners’ strike is an inherently non-violent protest. This, Israel refuses to accept. Because it can admit no wrong-doing and because of its obsessive need to control all aspects of Palestinian life, any resistance becomes a threat and, therefore, an “act of terror” that must be punished and snuffed out. It is this behavior that breeds resistance. And this deadly and tragic cycle will continue until Israel recognizes that its victims are real people who will not submit but will continue to assert their rights.
James J. Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute. Cartoon by Carlos Latuff.