Comment | Richard Falk: Palestine’s hunger strikers have created a Gandhian moment

Richard Falk, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories and world-renowned legal scholar, argues that despite the silence from Western media and politicians, the extraordinary hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners marks a dramatic shift in Palestinian tactics of resistance.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, May 11, 2012 0:00 - 4 Comments

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Palestinian children mark Palestinian Prisoners Day in front of the Red Cross headquarters in Gaza (Photo: REUTERS/Suhaib Salem-Telegraph)

Belatedly, the West is at least taking minimal note of some extraordinary developments in the pattern of Palestinian resistance to Israel’s long occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.

In recent years there has occurred a dramatic and notable shift in Palestinian resistance to tactics of nonviolence that is ignored by Western media. Although as yet there has not been a principled or total abandonment of armed struggle by the Palestinians, and there have been sporadic Palestinian reliance on violence, especially in the aftermath of Israeli provocations taking the form of targeted killings in Gaza or night arrests in the West Bank, there is a definite turn toward nonviolence both by Palestinians living under occupation and in the outlook of the Global Palestinian Solidarity Campaign.

For years influential commentators in the West have been insisting that if only the Palestinians would shift their resistance to nonviolent forms, even if only for pragmatic reasons, it would lead to a breakthrough for peace and justice. The reasoning was based on the perception that Israel as a democratic and morally sensitive society would respond favourably being far more willing to risk a just peace with Palestinians who had renounced violence and conducted their struggle in strict accord with ethical and legal norms.

With typical Western condescending moral arrogance such stalwarts of the liberal establishment in the United States as Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristof have been using their newspaper columns for years to give Palestinians the benefit of their guidance.

Kristof even had the audacity to choose the title, ‘Waiting for Gandhi,” for a column published in the NY Times back in July 2010. The mute response to these dramatic Palestinian hunger strikes should be an occasion of embarrassment for such liberal icons, but apparently isn’t, despite the absence of any show of responsiveness on Israel’s side and a sullen silence throughout the international community.

Only the spread of online protests, solidarity initiatives around the world, street demonstrations throughout Palestine, and most of all by the realization that the longer term hunger strikers are gathering at death’s door has led to ritual declaration of concern by such moral authority figures on the world scene as the UN Secretary General.

At the moment, the most significant expression of nonviolent resistance is this ongoing series of hunger strikes that was started a few months ago by two West Bank Palestinians brutally arrested in midnight raids on their homes and held under Israel’s administrative detention procedures – which allows indefinite imprisonment without charges and without even the disclosure of incriminating evidence.

Detention orders can last up to six months, and can be renewed indefinitely after each order expires. The first of these hunger strikers, Khader Adnan, was roughly arrested on December 17, 2011 by more than 50 Israeli soldiers in the presence of his two very young daughters and pregnant wife, and was then subjected to Israeli violence during a period of interrogation and humiliating prison conditions.

His refusal to eat or speak was immediately initiated, and lasted for 66 days, the same length as the famous IRA martyr, Bobby Sands, and was ended only because Israel agreed to release him early and pledged no renewal of administrative detention.

To demonstrate that his concerns were not just private, Adnan made it a point to visit the families of other administrative detainees before returning to his home in the village of Rabba near Jenin, and has also written an open letter to the people of the world appealing for support.

The second hunger striker, Hana Shalabi, inspired by the example set by Adnan, initiated her strike for similar reasons, refusing food for 43 days, and was released after reaching an agreement with Israeli prison officials, but with a punitive proviso: a deportation order that cruelly confined her to Gaza for three years, separated from her family and home village in the West Bank.

Adnan and Shalabi had been reported by independent medical examiners associated with Physicians for Human Rights-Israel to be in a critical life-threatening condition when they agreed to end their strikes.

These two strong displays of self-sacrifice and personal bravery led directly to a mass move toward protest against the practice of administrative detention and deplorable prison conditions by way of hunger strikes.

At present, as many as 1,600 Palestinians currently in Israeli prisons have committed themselves to ‘the battle of empty stomachs’ in the form of open-ended hunger strikes. Most of these Palestinians started their strikes on Prisoners Day, April 17th, although Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahleh, and a few others began earlier, and quite incredibly are still alive despite having refused food for more than 73 days.

The Israeli High Court denied petitions for their release, although in a judicial opinion that criticised the Israeli government for an excessive reliance on the administrative detention procedure and suggested that prison authorities in Israel might release them because of their medical condition, and thereby avoid a political backlash and damaging publicity should any of these strikers die.

The round-the-clock coverage given to Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese human rights activist who escaped from house arrest to the safety of the American Embassy, and was later released contrasts with the media neglect of the Palestinian hunger strikes.

From a strictly news perspective this is incomprehensible, given this unprecedented Palestinian challenge to the Israeli prison system in which the hunger strikers are sacrificing their bodies so as to make call attention to the abusive prison system.

These hunger strikes should also have been newsworthy as part a broader Palestinian strategic abandonment of armed resistance as their principal mode of struggle. In this new setting there is also an evident disillusionment with traditional diplomacy as capable of obtaining justice for the Palestinians or to achieve a sustainable peace between Israel and Palestine.

In the face of these frustrations, the Palestinians are resorting to other ways of upholding fundamental rights, as well as in relation to their underlying struggle for self-determination and statehood. The President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmood Abbas, made an eloquent appeal to the UN General Assembly for the admission of Palestine as a ‘state’ to the UN last September, only to have the initiative sidelined by opposition led by the United States.

Given Palestinian diplomatic recognition by more than 100 governments it is only a geopolitical ploy that is capable of denying the Palestinian leaders the opportunity to participate fully in the UN System.

What is gained by their exclusion beyond silencing their political voice in the one global arena that is dedicated to the peaceful resolution of conflict, the essential undertaking of the United Nations? The occupation of Palestine has continued for 45 years, and has gradually become a permanent structure of partial annexation that imposes an apartheid form of legal and political administration.

To keep the Palestinians stateless, voiceless, and subjugated for such a long interval should be understood as a geopolitical scandal, and totally discredits Western claims to back the universal implementation of human rights.

Palestinian civil society is now wisely emphasising coercive measures of non-violence to register its dissatisfaction with the failures of the UN and the inability of inter-governmental diplomacy to produce a just and sustainable peace.

The main international expression of this embrace of nonviolence is the adoption of tactics used so successfully by the anti-apartheid campaign two decades ago to change the political climate in racist South Africa, which unexpectedly clearer a nonviolent path to multiracial constitutional democracy. At the present time the growing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Campaign (BDS) is hoping to achieve similar results despite all the obstacles.

Let us recall that Gandhi’s success involved nonviolent forms of coercive resistance, and not just fasts and marches. But let us also appreciate that nothing gave greater force to Gandhi’s challenge to British imperial rule than his repeated willingness to subject his body to open-ended hunger strike that ignited the moral imagination and released the political energies of the Indian masses and led the media to cast a sympathetic eye on this epic struggle against colonial rule.

These Palestinian hunger strikes have already produced a Gandhian Moment. The future will disclose whether a new stage of mobilisation and solidarity on behalf of the Palestinians will be forthcoming.

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Richard Falk

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. In 2008, he was appointed the UN's special rapporteur on the Palestinian territories

4 Comments

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Sdatta
May 14, 2012 21:14

It’s Gandhi(an), not Ghandi(an), for God’s sake.

Hicham Yezza
May 15, 2012 0:53

Thanks for pointing it out, Sdatta. We’ve fixed it now.

jeremy milgrom
May 15, 2012 10:44

“Gandhi’s success involved nonviolent forms of coercive resistance” — what does Falk mean by “coercive resistance”? Being reminded that Gandhi had to fast repeatedly to get a crumbling empire to let go is a chilling indication of the parameters of the future struggle against militant Zionism that is girded with Holocaust trauma — we have our work cut out for us!

Oskar
May 16, 2012 13:50

Jeremy Milgrom: Oh please!
This is a great article on the future prospects of the Palestinian peace movement. The way you write “Zionism” could make a reader think you hated jews in general, when hopefully you merely have strong objections to the Israel treats it’s neighbours (e.g. 45 year occupation). Yes?

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