On 17 April, about 1,200 Palestinians held captive in Israeli jails, drawn from all strands of the resistance, began a massive hunger strike. They joined eight other prisoners who had begun a strike earlier, including two who had begun their fast back in February.
The 1,200 strikers quickly saw their ranks swell, with the number refusing food climbing to 2,000 out of an estimated prison population of 4,500. The strike held firm despite every repressive measure the zionists could dream up, including unannounced transfers of strikers from one place to another to undermine solidarity, physical attacks, theft of personal belongings, the imposition of fines, solitary confinement, and bans on family and lawyer visits.
Most cynical of all was the withdrawal of the salt ration from some prisoners (the sole sustenance taken by the strikers other than water). In the teeth of all this, and with some of their comrades rapidly approaching the final sacrifice, the strikers remained steadfast and determined.
The 15th of May approached, the day when Palestinians commemorate the Nakba (catastrophe) which overtook their nation in 1948, when zionist mass terror expelled so many of them from their homeland. Mobilisation for that day focused on the hunger strike, with protests outside the jails getting angrier
With every sign that the strikers would sooner embrace death than submit, zionism grew fearful of the eruption of a full-blown intifada growing out of the prison revolt. With cautionary hints being dropped by Israel’s imperialist backers (war criminal Blair counselled that the death of the prisoners would have “serious implications for stability and security conditions on the ground”), Israel abruptly went into panic retreat, doing its best to cover its tracks with a face-saving compromise brokered by Egypt.
In exchange for the ending of the strike Israel made a number of concessions. Twenty prisoners were to be released from solitary confinement, including one who had been in isolation since 2003. Three hundred prisoners interned without charge would have their cases reviewed at the expiry of six months and would not have their detention renewed without evidence being produced. Israel promised that 400 prisoners from Gaza could now get family visits (the first since 2006).
The fact that Israel made these grudging concessions, limited though they are and threadbare as is the credibility of all zionist promises at all times, nevertheless represents a humiliating retreat for Tel Aviv and its western backers. It also reveals how the struggle is maturing behind bars, turning even incarceration into a focus for revolutionary organisation.
The demands the prisoners made, and continue to make, are for an end to ‘administrative detention’ (better known to the Irish as the plainer ‘internment without trial’), the end of isolation (some have spent as long as 10 years in isolation), the right to family visits for people arrested in Gaza and an end to the interference with prisoners’ right to study.
Significantly, this last spiteful act of oppression confirms Israel’s mortal terror at the prospect of seeing its own prison system transformed into one vast school for revolution.
Since the 1967 war, Israel has incarcerated over 750,000 Palestinians. Set this against the fact that there are 3.5 million Palestinians living in all the territories annexed in 1967, with fully half of adult males suffering imprisonment at some point in their lives, then we can see that the education in political struggle received in jail is a big problem for the state that chooses to lock them up, as British imperialism discovered to its cost in the H Blocks of northern Ireland.
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) in April issued a fact sheet, ‘Palestinian Political Prisoners’, which noted that “Over the years, Palestinian prisoners have developed strategies of psychological survival and mutual support. They campaign to improve their living conditions and to assert their rights, according to international law. At the same time the more educated prisoners set up classes for fellow inmates; many take full degrees, some even produce doctoral dissertations. Political education is high on the agenda.”
Indeed, so fierce is the commitment to study that last year 400 prisoners went on strike to demand access to higher education! The fact sheet cites the words of one prisoner, who testifies that “Before being in prison, I was connected emotionally to the national struggle, but in jail I connected to it intellectually and ideologically. It was in prison that I read the theory. Love of the homeland became more rooted, for two reasons: my discussions with other people and my reading of pamphlets and books.”
Parallels with the Irish hunger strikes of 1981 multiply. The Palestinian strikers showed an ingenuity in getting word out which rivals that of the Irish prisoners of war. Where the Irish comrades smuggled out messages in tiny writing on cigarette papers, the Palestinians played cat and mouse with the guards, hiding mobile phones in wall cavities.
One former prisoner told the Daily Mail: “We have studied the northern Ireland hunger strikes carefully. Ten were martyred, and we are ready to follow their example.” (‘1,600 on hunger strike and the world doesn’t even bat an eyelid’ by David Rose, 5 May 2012)
Imperialism has done all in its power to dress up counter-revolution in Libya and Syria in the false colours of the ‘Arab spring’ and pull the anti-imperialist sting from the continuing struggles in Egypt, Bahrain and the Yemen. In sorting the wheat from the chaff, a good rule of thumb to what stands up as a ‘spring’ and what more resembles an ugly imperialist adventure has always been where the given ‘democratic opposition’ truly stands on the question of Palestine.
When the ‘Arab spring’ is surging forward right in the belly of the zionist beast, that is an occasion for revolutionary joy indeed.