Hunger Strikes: A Look At Why They Happen, And Whether They’re Worth It

From Israel to Gitmo, prisoners accused of terrorist activities have been held without charge, where they await an uncertain future.
By @MMichaelsMPN |
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    As 103 prisoners continue a hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay military prison, international pressure to close the U.S.-run facility intensifies. Senator John McCain (R- Ariz), a vocal critic of the prison, is leading a delegation departing Friday to examine conditions at the facility as prison authorities force-feed at least 41 prisoners.

    The lawmakers’ trip comes on the heels of a recent spate of Palestinian hunger strikes and allegations of torture in Israeli prisons has received far less attention. Mint Press News previously covered the case of Samer Issawi, a Palestinian man who secured his release after a 277-day fast with limited intravenous nutritional assistance. Outside of anecdotal family stories and limited coverage by human rights organizations, there has been little documentation of Israel’s process of administrative detention, which is being used to hold 155 men accused of terrorist activities but not formally charged with a crime. Overall, there are at least 4,748 Palestinian prisoners, many serving sentences related to political organizing that is deemed a threat to Israeli security.

    The tactic of hunger striking has been met with mixed results. In both Israel and Guantanamo, prisoners thought to be involved in terrorist activities have been held without charge or trial, where they await an uncertain future determined by arbitrary military orders outside the rule of law.


    Guantanamo strikes

    Opened in 2002, the Guantanamo Bay prison has housed over 779 men thought to be connected to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. More than 500 have been repatriated or transferred to another country, but 166 remain behind bars. Some have been there over a decade despite being cleared for release.

    A handful of Guantanamo prisoners began a hunger strike earlier this year to protest conditions described as inhumane by human rights organizations like Amnesty International. The protest quickly grew and now includes more than 103. Forty-three are being force-fed, according to the Washington Post.

    The forced feedings have been described as painful and have been scrutinized after Al-Jazeera published a 30-page document detailing the operating procedure for forced feedings.  During the course of the forced feedings, detainees are strapped to a chair for up to 2 hours as a tube roughly 61 centimeters long is forced down their nostril, allowing medical authorities to feed them.

    One detainee, Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, described the process as extremely painful in a New York Times op-ed published in April.

    “I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up,” he wrote.

    The United Nations and leading medical bodies have condemned the practice and demanded that the U.S. abandon it.

    “It is unjustifiable to engage in forced feeding of individuals contrary to their informed and voluntary refusal of such a measure. Moreover, hunger strikers should be protected from all forms of coercion, even more so when this is done through force and in some cases through physical violence,” writes the World Medical Assembly of Malta.

    Despite President Obama’s renewed promise last month to close the facility, the U.S. presence at Guantanamo has intensified in response to the ongoing hunger strikes.

    On Wednesday, the U.S. decided to dispatch 125 additional troops stationed in Puerto Rico to assist with the forced feedings at Guantanamo. The Miami Herald reports that the increase is part of a longer-term plan to increase total U.S. presence, including doctors and medical personnel, to 2,000.

    As of Wednesday, the Pentagon already had 1,831 troops and civilians assigned to the prison, including 15 extra public-affairs troops training 20 replacements.

    Authorities claim that part of the reason more troops are needed is to assist with the transfer of detainees into lockdown and solitary confinement.

    “When you go to single cell, that takes more people,” said Navy Capt. Robert Durand, the prison spokesman.

    No prisoners have died, but several have been classified as being in serious condition.


    Palestinian Hunger Strikes

    So far, Guantanamo detainees have failed to change the status quo policies of indefinite detention, but a wave of hunger strikes in Israeli prisons have led to the release of some Palestinian prisoners who have been held without charge or trial.

    Unlike Guantanamo, where there are major demonstrations and frequent reports by mainstream news agencies, the Palestinian prisoner issue is clouded due to a lack of information. Much of the information comes from lawyers, family members and a handful of human rights organizations.

    Palestinian prisoners have undertaken intermittent hunger strikes dating back to at least 1998. The most recent wave, which began last year, was initiated by prisoners held under administrative detention, a military order that allows authorities to hold an individual for six months or more without charge when security may be at stake.

    A handful of detainees have already been released as a result of the action. Al-Arabiya reports that last month, an Israeli military appeals court ordered the release of two Palestinian prisoners held without trial since November. The prisoners — Jaafar Ezzedine and Tariq Qaadan — had staged a 3-month hunger strike to demand their release.

    The release comes on the heels of a successful deal brokered in April that terminated Issawi’s 277-day hunger strike in exchange for his release. Issawi agreed to end his fast after Israeli and Palestinian authorities reached a deal that would send him to his home in Jerusalem after he serves an additional 8 months.

    According to Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian prisoner organization, Issawi was arrested 10 months ago for allegedly violating bail conditions from an earlier release. The 32-year-old lapsed into grave physical condition in recent months while fasting to protest his prolonged time behind bars without charge or trial.

    Issawi received some intravenous nutritional assistance but was near death, according to reports from his family.

    Issawi and his supporters drew inspiration from Khader Adnan, alleged by Israel to be a leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Adnan began a hunger strike in 2012 to protest his arrest. Israeli authorities claim that Adnan was involved in “activities that threaten regional security,” but like Issawi, he was not formally charged with a crime. Hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli prisons reportedly joined Adnan in his hunger strike as an act of solidarity. On April 18, 2012, he was released after fasting for 66 days.

    Hanan Ashrawi, executive member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, called the protest a victory “for millions of Palestinians.”

    “The hunger strikers’ courage is magnificently inspiring and their selflessness deeply humbling. They have truly demonstrated that non-violent resistance is an essential tool in our struggle for freedom,” he said.

    The issue is far from over as B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, reports that as of April, 4,748 Palestinian security detainees and prisoners were held in Israeli prisons. Of this number, 155 are held under administrative detention.

    Included in the ranks are 236 Palestinian minors held as security detainees and prisoners. An additional 21 Palestinian minors were held in Israeli Prison Service facilities for being in Israel illegally.

    There is a dearth of information surrounding incidents of torture in Israeli prisons. In the wake of Arafat Jaradat’s death in February, his lawyer claimed that he was beaten during an interrogation. Jaradat was originally arrested on suspicion of throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at settlers.

    Haaretz reports that he died after 6 days of detention and interrogation in an Israeli prison, sparking condemnation from family, friends and supporters.

    “I am standing here before you and telling you in all responsibility: Arafat Jaradat’s death was a result of torture. Israel cannot shrug off the responsibility for his blood,” said Mohammed Barakeh, member of Knesset, addressing Jaradat’s mourners.


    Historical possibility

    Whether used by Palestinians in Israeli prisons or detainees at Guantanamo, hunger strikes have long been used as a last resort tactic to protest inhumane conditions or advocate for a political cause.

    For some, the hunger strikes have ended unsuccessfully with the victim perishing without any major change in policy. It’s a possibility that looms large for those taking drastic action to petition for their release.

    In 1981, Bobby Sands, a member of the Irish Republican Army, died after a 66-day hunger strike. He was one of 10 who died fighting to unify Ireland by bringing an end British political control.

    At the time, more immediate prisoner demands included the the right to wear civilian clothes, the right to education and recreational opportunities, and freedom from work obligations.

    Because of his widespread popularity, Sands was elected to Parliament posthumously, after he gained strong public support. The British government later granted many of the prisoners’ demands but the broader political conflict remains unresolved to this day.


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