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Starving for Justice | The Nation

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Starving for Justice

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(Illustration by Eugene Mihaesco)

This past April, the Youth Against Settlements website posted a letter from Samer Tariq Issawi, a Palestinian imprisoned by the Israeli government. “I invite you to visit me, to see a skeleton tied to his hospital bed, and around him three exhausted jailers,” he wrote. “Sometimes they have their appetizing food and drinks around me. The jailers watch my suffering, my loss of weight and my gradual melting.”

Initially locked up in 2002 for violent crimes, Issawi was released in 2011 as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange. In July 2012, Israeli forces imprisoned him again after he violated the terms of his parole by traveling to the West Bank. A military committee refused to let him see the evidence against him as it sought to impose the remainder of his original twenty-six-year sentence. Facing an unfair trial and seventeen more years in prison, he started a hunger strike in August 2012. He was still fasting on April 22 when the committee held a bedside hearing. Issawi had become a hero to many Palestinians, a symbol of resistance. News of his debilitation had triggered clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian protesters in Bethlehem. Clearly fearing what would happen if he died, the committee agreed to release him in eight months. If Israel keeps its word, Issawi will leave prison in December.

This was the year of the hunger strike—did you notice? The mainstream press didn’t. While the fasts in Guantánamo and California received significant coverage, the broader phenomenon went unremarked. There were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of sustained hunger strikes all over the world. In fact, it’s difficult to identify sizable countries where there wasn’t at least one noteworthy fast. Most took place in prisons. Together, the strikes reflect the universal disregard for the rights of prisoners as well as the worldwide increase in radical protest of all forms.


Palestinians acting as Israeli soldiers who are depicted as ghosts, stand behind a wheelchair with a man playing the role of Palestinian prisoner Samer al-Issawi, who has been on intermittent hunger strike in an Israeli jail, inside a mock cage in Gaza City March 20, 2013. (Reuters/Mohammed Salem)

The hunger strike dates back thousands of years in countries as different as India and Ireland, but it became more common in the early twentieth century, as the advent of mass communications enabled fasters and their supporters to generate much greater publicity. A hunger strike is usually an act of desperation, but it is also a rational response to state oppression. Fasters have included activists no less esteemed than Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, the suffragists and the students at Tiananmen Square.

Activists fasted this year for the same reason this ancient tactic has endured: it’s effective, all the more so when the possibility of martyrdom exists. “No target of protest wants that on their hands,” says Stephen Scanlan, a sociologist at Ohio University who has researched hunger strikes. “Once a protest campaign reaches this level, concessions are typically won.”

Yet serious hunger strikers risk illness and sometimes death. Many also suffer abuse. First-person accounts from Guantánamo reveal the violence of force-feeding prisoners, which violates international law, yet governments do it with impunity. This past July, in response to high-profile hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners, Israel’s Justice Ministry began drafting a bill that would allow force-feeding. As governments grow ever more determined to deny martyrdom to hunger strikers, force-feeding is becoming an urgent civil liberties issue, one that ought to unite prisoners’ rights, anti-torture and right-to-die advocates.

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