The hunger strikers’ demands include access to public telephones to talk with relatives, twice a month family visits of more than 45 minutes per visit, permission to take photographs with their families, adequate health care, air conditioning and an end to solitary confinement.
There are roughly 6,500 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails, most from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including more than 500 administrative detainees. Under administrative detention the Israeli military can hold people indefinitely on secret information without right to a trial.
The strike was initiated by Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who has been in prison since 2002.
“This is not a campaign to free the prisoners, we’re talking about improving their conditions,” Khalida Jarrar, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a prominent supporter of the hunger strike, told the Militant from Ramallah May 6. Jarrar spent 14 months in prison in Israel herself and was released in May 2016. She was first placed in administrative detention and later charged in a military court.
“In the women’s prison we were allowed only two books a month,” she said, and faced widespread overcrowding.
Israeli authorities only permit close relatives — parents, spouses and children — to visit, but often arbitrarily deny permits, Jarrar said. “Even if you have a permit when you reach the checkpoint between the West Bank and Israel,” she said, “sometimes the guards confiscate it and you’ve lost your chance.”
The worst conditions are when prisoners are transported for court hearings or medical treatment. “They would take us early in the morning in a special vehicle called a ‘Bosta,’” Jarrar said. “It’s like being transported in a metal box with very small cells, metal benches and your hands and legs are shackled.”
You’re kept in there for hours, she said sometimes from early in the morning to late at night.
So-called common prisoners, including Jewish Israelis, are housed in the same prisons, in separate wings. “They transport us in the same van, but in different compartments. We can’t see each other, but they sometimes shout to us,” said Jarrar. Thousands have demonstrated in the West Bank to back the hunger strike but support inside Israel has been limited.
The news media and government supporters “present the political prisoners as terrorists and murderers and make fun of the hunger strike,” said Muna Haddad by phone May 9. Haddad is a lawyer with Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. “You don’t hear clear voices from inside Israel saying that these are humane demands.”
But the political line of many of the strikers is also an obstacle to winning broader support. In an April 17 op-ed column in the New York Times, Barghouti correctly points out that “Israel has established a dual legal regime.” Palestinians from the West Bank face Israeli military courts with different standards of proof and fewer rights for the accused. Palestinian citizens of Israel, like all Israeli citizens, for the most part face civilian courts.
But Barghouti weakens the case by claiming this is “judicial apartheid,” linking the hunger strike to an international campaign that paints Israeli society as the same as South Africa under apartheid rule, qualitatively different than other capitalist countries.
This false argument by those calling for boycotting Israel gets in the way of common struggle against capitalist injustice by Palestinians and Israelis alike.
Some 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Palestinians, who face discrimination in jobs, housing and access to government services. They make up 43 percent of the prisoners jailed in the country.
At the same time, Jewish, Arab and foreign-born workers inside Israel are members of the same unions and have gone on strike together for higher wages and better work conditions. Many of the lawyers defending the hunger strikers are Palestinians who graduated from Israeli universities.
“The general prison population in Israel faces similar conditions — not enough family visits, lack of access to timely medical care, overcrowding, solitary confinement, deplorable conditions for transporting prisoners,” Michael Mahpud, from People for Prisoners, said by phone from Israel May 9. “The whole prison system has to be changed.”