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Hunger striker lays bare isolation of Palestinian protesters

Feb. 1, 2016 10:42 P.M. (Updated: Feb. 17, 2016 8:47 P.M.)
An elderly man looks at pictures of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails during a protest in East Jerusalem on April 15, 2010. (AFP/File)
By: Killian Redden

RAMALLAH (Ma’an) -- When the hunger strike was over, another Palestinian prisoner offered Qadura Fares the Imperial cigarette he had been saving for himself and thanked him for negotiating its successful conclusion.

Sitting in his Ramallah office in the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society he now heads, Fares proudly recalls that victory in 1992: a hunger strike he undertook along with 11,000 other Palestinian prisoners that brought the Israeli authorities to their knees.

For Fares, that mass protest symbolized the total unity of the Palestinians. Having had their demands met, he recalled how an Israeli officer ordered him to phone each prison across the length of Israel and announce to the prisoners the strike was over.

Each call took only a few minutes. “We were like an army,” Fares said. “We were far from each other, but we had one voice.”

Fresh cigarette smoke wafts and curls around the weary man in his office. More than two decades on, as yet another Palestinian hunger striker, 33-year-old Muhammad al-Qiq, edges closer to death, that sense of unity could not seem a more distant illusion.

The Palestinian Prisoner’s Society has been making its greatest efforts to secure al-Qiq’s release, but so far, Fares said, the Israeli authorities have shown no willingness to negotiate.

With the occupied Palestinian territory engulfed by unrest, the main Palestinian factions pitched against one another, and the Palestinian Authority in disarray, there is the sense that al-Qiq, risking his life for a broken Palestinian cause, has been left alone.

No leverage

A West Bank journalist, al-Qiq initially went on hunger strike in late November to protest the torture he said he faced under Israeli interrogation, but his protest quickly developed into another bid to challenge Israel’s imprisonment of political detainees without trial or charge.

Palestinian prisoners Khader Adnan and Muhammad Allan both took on hunger strikes last year to protest the same practice, known as administrative detention. Adnan went 55 days without food, Allan 66, and both were nearly dead by the time Israel agreed to their release.

The Palestinian Prisoner’s Society played a crucial role in the negotiations that led to that result, but Fares said the situation had changed since then.

With those earlier hunger strikes, Israel was keen to avoid the unrest that might follow their deaths, but at this point, unrest has already swept the Palestinian territory. “The Israelis think they have nothing to lose,” he said.

Routine clashes have erupted across the Palestinian territory, accompanied by a string of small-scale attacks by Palestinians, most of them armed only with knives, and the Palestinian leadership no longer has any leverage to negotiate al-Qiq's release.

Fares said there has also been almost no international pressure over his case; it has gone unacknowledged by most foreign diplomats.

Shackled to his hospital bed, some 70 days into a hunger strike that has left his life hanging in the balance, al-Qiq has been denied access to the secret evidence that led to his arrest.

His situation is hardly unique: he is one of nearly 7,000 Palestinian political detainees in Israeli custody, at least 660 of whom are now being held in administrative detention. Israel faces no more pressure over any of these other prisoners.

A Palestinian holds up a poster depicting Palestinian journalist Muhammad al-Qiq, who has been on hunger strike 70 days to protest his administrative detention. (AFP/Abbas Momani, File)

‘To go alone’

While the clashes that have erupted in recent months have denied the Palestinians negotiating power, for Fares -- who can remember the influence of a united Palestinian people -- the current powerlessness represents a much wider failing in the Palestinian national cause.

When Adnan and Allan went on hunger strike last year, it was rumored that many senior PA officials resented what they saw as the prisoners’ individualistic bravado.

They believed that any decision that had the potential to spark wider unrest in the occupied Palestinian territory belonged solely to them, the leaders.

Moreover, the Fatah-dominated PA was inherently suspicious of both men’s affiliations to Islamic Jihad, a rival Palestinian faction. Both men had previously spent time in PA prisons.

As their hunger strikes reached their final stages, both prisoners' families said they believed the PA could have done more to represent their cause.

Fares stressed that the PA had never sought to interfere with his society’s work, and also noted that there was genuine concern for al-Qiq among the PA. “He is not a terror leader,” he said. “He’s a journalist and a civilian.”

However, Fares acknowledged that some PA officials believed hunger strikes ought to be a collective decision, and not one taken individually; any form of protest ought to be a unified effort.

But he said that the prisoners had been left little choice.

“Public resistance needs unity, it needs a program,” he said. “If there is no program, then you have to think alone, to plan alone, to go alone.”

Symbol of defeat

The popular unrest that has engulfed the occupied Palestinian territory in recent months has been marked by a total lack of leadership and organization.

A young, disenfranchised generation has flocked to the clashes, openly contemptuous of the PA’s governance, while some of the Palestinians who carried out attacks on Israelis sought to disassociate themselves from Palestine’s traditional factional lines.

Al-Qiq’s protest has been non-violent, but in many ways he is no less isolated and leaderless than those young Palestinians that have gone willingly to their deaths in a desperate act of violence.

Fares is holding out hope that Israel’s Supreme Court, which is this week considering an appeal by the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society lawyers, may still agree to al-Qiq’s release.

But whether the hunger striker lives or dies, it seems clear his protest is less a symbol of Palestinian defiance than one of a defeated national cause.

The Palestinian leadership, Fares said, ought to be to seeking to unify the Palestinians, to “create hope,” but he said that in many ways he was not optimistic. “We have to be serious. We have to be objective.”

He drew on his cigarette. “The Israelis will worry if we become united.”
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