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The Freedom and Dignity hunger strike and the meaning of victory Palestinian prisoners' hunger strike: Success but a missed opportunity?

Lately we’ve been living through minor victories and major grief.

On Friday May 26 we woke up to two big pieces of news: The body for Palestinian prisoner affairs announced the suspension of a 41-day hunger strike by hundreds of Palestinian prisoners after negotiations with Israeli prison authorities, and an attack on Coptic Christians in Minya, Egypt, had killed and injured dozens of people.

More than 1,700 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons began an open-ended hunger strike, “the Freedom and Dignity strike,” on April 17, 2017 (the Day of the Palestinian Prisoner) in protest over their conditions. As the already right-wing Israeli government has shifted even further to the right, even the gains previously won by Palestinian prisoners have been taken away.

Among their demands were: the right to regular visitation hours once a fortnight, the lifting of obstructions to such visits, increasing visit times from 45 minutes to an hour-and-a-half, permitting visits from relatives that are not immediate family, access to regular medical checkups, timely and professional medical care, that prisoners not be required to pay for their treatment and the lifting of administrative detention.

On the 41st day of their hunger strike, prisoners reached an agreement with Israeli authorities over these demands, primarily the issue of visitation, as well as discussions as to the improvement of their conditions, in return for suspending their hunger strike. Hundreds of prisoners were transferred to prison clinics or civilian hospitals in the last week of the strike as their conditions had deteriorated.

Campaigns and counter-campaigns

Using the hashtag #dignity_strike, Arabs and solidarity activists shared information about the hunger strike and updates on the health of prisoners who were surviving only on water and salt. Some held hunger strikes outside prison in solidarity, and demonstrations took place in Haifa, Ramallah and other cities.

“Those prisoners are not imprisoned because they stole a cow or assaulted a girl on the street … they are there for us, for our national cause.”

The campaign was met by a counter-campaign from the Israeli establishment that attempted to break the prisoners’ resolve and attack their reputation internationally. The echoes of the logic of this campaign were in some ways worse than the smear campaign itself, as it deflected attention away from the colonial power and from the Palestinian Authority (PA) — whose performance is characterized by continual complicity, and whose responsibility should have been to promote prisoner demands — and focused instead on the battle of empty stomachs.

We should not be surprised by the performance of the PA, but we might also examine our own shortcomings as Palestinians.

A missed opportunity?

Palestinian poet Khaled Gomaa says the hunger strike was a missed historic opportunity. “I was one of the naïve people who thought that the issue of prisoners could contribute, for example, to resolving the split, could unite the street and the PA … could even change the behavior of the Palestinian street towards itself and its issues. But all this only happened to a minimal extent. Even on the days when cities responded to the strikes in support of the prisoners, everyone stayed in their homes, as if on holiday,” he wrote on the 40th day of the strike, adding, “Those prisoners who have been sitting in Israeli prisons and hospitals for 40 days are not imprisoned because they stole a cow or assaulted a girl on the street. They are not imprisoned because they robbed a bank or home. They are there for us, for our national cause.”

Likewise, the assassination of writer and political activist Basil al-Araj was seen by some as a lost opportunity for our struggle. I do not say this in order to blame any individual, as we all have our own circumstances to contend with, but as a criticism of political movements.

During the strike, the sister of one of the prisoners arrived at a sit-in tent in support of the cause and found no one there. In a video, broadcast by Al-Quds TV, the girl shouted, “Where are the men? Where is Fatah? Where is Hamas? Where are the youth of Palestine? I want my brother! My brother is in hospital, I don’t want him to become a martyr.”

The meaning of victory

After the strike was suspended, a short video was posted on social media from a tent sit-in for the families of prisoners in Ramallah, showing an old man being carried on the shoulders of young people, celebrating with his wooden stick after hearing the news. The camera moves to capture a woman dancing and carrying the Palestinian flag.

Another video, posted on Twitter on May 30, shows prisoner Uday Abu al-Saad from Jerusalem embracing his daughter Watan for the first time. She was born during his hunger strike and he had not been made aware of her birth.

The old man, the woman dancing with the flag, the newborn daughter and many other happy and emotional stories of prisoners and their families, the stories that followed the strike, are all stories of success, fought for 41 long days. But will there be any impact beyond this?

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