Where Food Is More Than Nourishment

Stanley Cohen looks at the role of hunger strike in an international context. An edited version of this article featured in Aljazeera.

What do Bobby Sands, Nelson Mandela and Palestinian hunger strikers have in common?

Hunger strikes are no stranger to the Palestinian political landscape [Reuters]

Count time, count time, count time. In prisons all across the world, in as many different languages as there are cruel autocratic despots hanging on to ruthless power, political prisoners are called out from the isolation of their cell-blocks to stand for a moment to ensure they’ve somehow not magically escaped from the dungeons and catacombs they call home. What’s missed? For them, prison is a choice... principle is not.

The march from Bobby Sands to Mandela to Palestinian hunger strikers is steady and unbroken. It derives its strength from resistance as ancient as tyranny itself. Often faceless to most but themselves, each collective that has struggled to maintain personal dignity in pursuit of shared justice has become a torch bearer... inheritors of an age-old arch of liberty bound by resistance, sacrifice and little else. It’s enough.

Who today remembers the names of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst?  In early 20th Century England, these pioneering suffragettes and their many sisters were imprisoned time and time again for little more than rejecting ageless systemic patriarchy. Once there, many said no to food while their jailers said yes to torture. In a powerful account of the effects of forced feeding, suffragette Mary Leigh recounted her experience:

I was then surrounded and forced back onto the chair, which was tilted backward. There were about ten persons around me. The doctor then forced my mouth so as to form a pouch, and held me while one of the wardresses poured some liquid from a spoon; it was milk and brandy. After giving me what he thought was sufficient, he sprinkled me with eau de cologne, and wardresses then escorted me to another cell on the first floor. The wardresses forced me onto a bed (in the cell) and two doctors came in with them. While I was held down a nasal tube was inserted. It was two yards long, with a funnel at the end; there was a glass junction in the middle to see if the liquid was passing. The end was put up left and right nostrils on alternate days. Great pain was experienced during the process, both mental and physical. One doctor inserted the end up my nostril while I was held down by the wardresses, during which process they must have seen my pain, for the other doctor interfered (the matron and two other wardresses were in tears) and they stopped and resorted to feeding me by spoon. More eau de cologne was used.

South Africa

Robben Island, located within view of the waterfront of Cape Town South Africa, has been used since the end of the 17th century to isolate political prisoners of the day. In the mid 1740’s, after leading the early resistance against the Dutch East India Company, Sayed Abdurahman Moturu (one of Cape Town’s first imams) was exiled there... where he died a decade later. His gravestone was to become a shrine that Muslim political prisoners would pay homage to when leaving the island.

The country’s highest security prison, Robben Island was home to a veritable who’s who of political resistance during the revolution that ultimately toppled South African Apartheid. Nelson Mandela served 18 of his 27 years there (initially under a life sentence) as did two others who went on to become President of South Africa... Kgalema Motlanthe and the current President, Jacob Zuma.

One month after Mandela’s release on February 11, 1990, hundreds of other remaining political prisoners, including members of the African National Congress (ANC), its rival the Pan-Africanist Congress, and the Black Consciousness Movement went on a hunger strike demanding their release under a general amnesty for those formally designated as political prisoners.

Precluded from the amnesty because of their individual tactics in confronting apartheid, hunger strikers challenged the government’s attempt to define “acceptable” resistance.

In a statement of political principle, smuggled from the Island, hunger strikers defined political prisoners as ''all incarcerated people who have engaged themselves in various ways in the struggle against the system of apartheid.” Not long thereafter, most of these strikers were released.

An earlier hunger strike in 1989, in South Africa, proved to be no less successful. At the time, hundreds of political prisoners, who had been imprisoned without charges for almost three years, demanded the government end its policy of indefinite detentions and either free its 1,000 detainees or bring them to court.

In the years leading up to this strike, over thirty thousand political detainees had been held for various periods, in administrative detention, without benefit of formal court proceedings through a state policy that permitted the arrest and detention of anyone considered to be a “threat” to public safety without filing of formal charges.

Approximately a month after the strike began, and which resulted in nearly two dozen strikers being hospitalized, the government released hundreds of uncharged detainees and cut back substantially on its practice of indefinite detention without trial.


Often, hunger strikes do not end with a joyful break to fast but rather loss of life. Nowhere is that ultimate sacrifice more dramatically spoken than in the not too distant history of Republican resistance to British tyranny.

Beginning first in 1972, then again in 1980... and finally for some 217 days in 1981, Republicans, by the dozens, refused food as they risked all to obtain, among other things, prisoner of war status, the right to wear their own clothing, and freedom of association. 

When the final hunger strike ended, 7 members of the Provisional IRA and three from the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) died in Long Kesh Prison, or the Maze (located just outside Belfast in the North of Ireland), during a staggered protest which, in its later stages, drew in a new political prisoner each week.

Although Bobby Sands, who died less than a month after being elected a Member of Parliament, has become synonymous with the hunger strike, an additional ten political prisoners sacrificed their lives inside the Maze and another 61 people lost their lives to related street violence which raged outside its walls during the strike’s seven months.

In a begrudging testament to the determination and sacrifice of the strikers, some year’s later one of the prison jailers noted:

At first we thought they were dirty animals. The stench was incredible. Our stomachs turned when we went near the cells and we couldn’t understand how anyone could live in such filth. But eventually there was some grudging respect for those on the protest. They were incredibly determined. I didn’t agree with what they were doing but you had to admire them for sticking it out. At first I thought it would only last a few days, or a week or two at the most, but they kept going for years and then queued up to give their lives. I don’t think I would have been able to do it, no matter what the cause.” [pp 256-257, Inside The Maze – The Untold Story of the Northern Ireland Prison Service by Chris Ryder. Methuen 2000. ISBN 0 413 75240 2]


Like IRA hunger strikers, to many, resistance is born not of simple choice but, rather, principled necessity... no matter what the ultimate personal cost. Nowhere is that more powerfully viewed than through the prism of Palestinian political prisoners who, by the thousands, have lived and, often, died in their timeless campaigns to obtain justice from deep behind the mask of prisons walls.

Indeed, just as political prisoners played an essential role in ultimately bringing down apartheid in South Africa, so, too, Palestinian political prisoners have long been in the vanguard of a national struggle to confront and dismantle the shroud of Israeli apartheid.

Today, in prisons throughout Israel, more than 1800 political prisoners, including hundreds of uncharged detainees, have now entered the second month of a mass hunger strike. Growing each day in strength and determination, the strike, which began on Palestine Prisoners day, added two hundred more detainees just this past week. The strikers demand a range of fundamental human and political rights including an end to administrative detention, an end to solitary confinement, more time to visit with families and the ability to pursue higher education.

Hunger strikes are no stranger to the Palestinian political landscape. Over the years, they’ve played a central role in challenging a despotic state fueled and sustained by arbitrary, often indefinite, detention under inhumane conditions of confinement punctuated by outright torture that has taken the lives of at least 75 political prisoners since 1967.

Ranging from short-term, individual or small group defiance, in isolated prisons to mass hunger strikes, by the thousands, that quickly spread throughout the Israeli Gulag, these acts of political will and resistance have a history going back some 50 years. Beginning in 1969 with a spontaneous short lived hunger strike in two prisons, they reached their numerical high-point in 1992 when some 7000 prisoners stopped eating for more than two weeks.  

On other occasions, thousands of Palestinian political prisoners have refused food: 3000 for 20 days in 1987, 4000 over 18 days in 2004 and 2000 during a month long hunger strike in 2012.

In the longest hunger strike to date, several hundred prisoners refused food for some 63 days in 2014. During that strike, 70 were hospitalized and subsequently returned to prison. In 1970, hunger striker Abdul QaderAbu al-Fahm was not so fortunate. Nor were Rasem Halawah and Ali Jafari in 1980. These three hunger strikers died as a result of forced feeding procedures. 

Though strikers have challenged a wide range of conditions of confinement over the years, including arbitrary treatment, widespread use of solitary confinement, substandard prison conditions, bans on family visits, poor medical care and the failure to meet sanitary needs of women prisoners... the one constant, throughout, has been a challenge to the system of administrative detention. 

Under this practice, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian prisoners have been detained, many for years on end and without any formal charges or the benefit of civilian judicial proceedings in clear violation of well settled international humanitarian law.

In 2011, renowned professor and author, Ahmad Qatamesh (recently again detained only a few days ago), who has spent more than eight and a half years in prison during multiple administrative detentions, noted, in one of his rote appearances before a military court, what generations of Palestinian detainees have experienced:

You are destroying my life and I want to know why. As a human being I have my own mind and I am educated, and I want to know what I am detained for. The military prosecution talks of its professionalism, and meanwhile I have no rights?

Administrative detention is detention without safeguards of formal charge or trial. When prolonged or repeated, it constitutes cruel and degrading treatment or punishment. Like in South Africa, it remains the hallmark of a draconian “security” system which has been used since 1967 to dampen political resistance in the Occupied Territories.

It has been estimated that, at any given time, some three to four thousand “security prisoners” are detained, or serving sentences, in Israeli prisons under far more severe conditions than those established for “criminal prisoners.”

Likewise, at any given time, hundreds of these security prisoners are held pursuant to purely administrative detention orders with no intention by Israel to ever try them for a criminal offense... in clear violation of their fundamental rights to a fair trial.

International Human-Rights

The right to liberty is one of the core tenets of human rights and prolonged arbitrary detention constitutes a fundamental breach of international customary law.

In relevant part, Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states:

1. Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedures as are established by law.

2. Anyone who is arrested shall be informed, at the time of arrest, of the reasons for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against him.

3. Anyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court, in order that that court may decide without delay on the lawfulness of his detention and order his release if the detention is not lawful.

The provisions of the Covenant are not absolute and provide some flexibility in limited, and well defined, circumstances which permit States to temporarily suspend its mandate. However, the exception was not intended to provide a pretext whereby a state may escape its obligations by simply declaring itself to be in a perpetual public emergency. Yet, that is precisely what Israel has done throughout its existence.

Under Article 4.1 of the Covenant, “[i]n times of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation”, the state may infringe, to a restricted extent, the rights enshrined in some of the articles, including the article addressing the right to liberty. Even then, the state is restricted and may only take vital measures, and only “to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” (Emphasis provided)

Furthermore Article 4.3 requires states which seek to avail themselves of the right of derogation to give advance notice of their intention to the Secretary-General of the United Nations on a case by case basis.

In what can only be described as a perverse illustration of the exception swallowing the rule, since its foundation, Israel has declared itself to be in a perpetual state of emergency and thus removed from any of its obligations under this particular human rights provision.

Israeli Torture

To understand the determination of Palestinian hunger strikers demands a walk down the pathway of history of those that have been swept up by a brutal state that sees no limit to its power or abuse.

Israel views all who challenge its reach as enemy combatants whether they be 10 year olds who refuse to stop when ordered or 80 year olds who carry the bodies of their murdered grandchildren to the martyr’s cemeteries that have become so much the norm throughout Occupied Palestine.

Not to be confused with an enlightened state, in Israel, Palestinian detainees can be interrogated for a period of 75 days and denied access to a lawyer for up to 60. Historically, it has made brutal use of essentially unlimited interrogation opportunities of political detainees without the safeguard of counsel.

Until outlawed, in 1999, by its High Court of Justice, Israeli agents routinely used interrogation methods that constitute a veritable primer for torture. Among other procedures, detainees were subjected to sleep deprivation by binding them in painful positions, playing loud music or covering their heads with a filthy sack while exposed to extreme heat or cold.

Often, they were tied to a low chair that was tilted forward with their hands tightly cuffed. On other occasions interrogees were forced to stand with their hands tied and drawn upwards, forced to lie on their back on a high stool with their body arched backwards, or made to crouch on their toes with their hands tied behind them. Violent shaking of detainees was very much the norm with the interrogator using threats and curses, as well as feeding them poor-quality and insufficient amounts of food.

Notwithstanding its ban of such techniques, the court went on to hold that agents could continue to use "physical pressure" upon detainees in the matter of a  so-called "ticking time-bomb," relying on the rationale of “necessity.” 

As reported in May of 2007, agents continued to rely upon this judicial imprimatur for lawful torture in a “small” percentage of cases. Thus, “interrogation” steps pursuant to this exception included sleep deprivation, beatings, painful cuffing, and sudden pulling of the body, twisting of the head, and back bending.

Today, Palestinian political prisoners report that conditions of confinement and interrogation represent but a variation on a theme rendered illegal almost 20 years ago.

For example, many detainees report being held in solitary confinement in narrow windowless cells completely isolated from their surroundings. Others described exposure to extremes of heat and cold and sleep deprivation caused by artificial lighting painful to the eyes. Hygienic conditions have been depicted as abominable; among other things, prison authorities often do not allow detainees to shower, change clothes, or even use toilet paper. Food is poor in quality and quantity, and detainees lose weight while in custody.

In the interrogation room, itself, prisoners are forced to sit bound to a chair and cannot move for hours and even days at a time. Interrogators routinely shout at and torment detainees, often including threats to harm their relatives. On occasion physical force is still used against them.

Palestinian Political Prisoners

As of April, 2017, there were 6300 political prisoners, including 300 children, 61 females and 13 Palestinian Legislative Council members, entombed in Israeli prisons. In addition, 500 uncharged and untried detainees languish alongside them completely in the dark as to what it is they did that caused the loss of their freedom.

These political prisoners continue an unbroken march of 50 years in which as of 11 December 2012, the office of then Prime Minister Salam Fayyad reported that since 1967, 800,000 Palestinians, or roughly 20% of the total population and 40% of the male population, had been imprisoned by Israel at one point in time.

According to Palestinian estimates, 70% of Palestinian families have had one or more family members sentenced to jail terms in Israeli prisons as a result of activities against the occupation.

The latest Palestinian hunger strike has now reached day 40 (May 26, 2017) with 60 prisoners sent to hospital because their medical condition had deteriorated. 592 others have been moved for observation to infirmaries set up in the prisons.

If history is indeed an accurate predictor of events yet to unfold, some, perhaps many, of these prisoners will die from forced feeding procedures which offend prevailing worldwide medical standards.

In Palestine, the streets have exploded in support of hunger strikers by family and friends and those who share their national journey by virtue of being stateless people in their own occupied homeland. Many have been injured, including those felled by Israeli gun fire. 

In dozens of countries across the world, demonstrations by activists, students, trade union members, religious leaders and parliamentarians have taken place in support of the hunger strike.

Demonstrators have called for a global one day hunger strike in support of Palestinian prisoners.

More than a dozen South African political leaders and public figures recently undertook a day-long solidarity fast including deputy minister Nomaindia Mfeketo – who herself was detained several times in the 1980s for anti-government activism.

Of the millions worldwide who have stood as one in support of the strike one voice sums up the spirit and determination of Palestinian hunger strikers:

Our resisting people

I address you from behind the barbed wire on the 37th day of the battle for freedom and dignity to inform you that our bodies may be weakened and barely able to move, but our spirits reach the sky, and despite the stretch of the battle and its ferocity, we are determined to continue until we achieve victory, not only for us but for all of our people.

The prison and security authorities have tried through several meetings offered to us to suspend the strike and discuss our demands after that, but we refused and have categorically rejected this approach.

We are determined to complete the mission to the fullest. This battle is not only a battle of prisoners and their demands, but it is the battle of the people and their dignity.

It is no secret that weakness and fatigue have hit our bodies, but our will and determination have grown and strengthened above the ability of our bodies.

On the 37th day, we assure you that we will not retreat before the escalation and arrogance of the occupier. We will escalate our steps of struggle in the days to come, at the forefront of these steps to refrain from taking salt water.

This requires a parallel escalation of our people and our supporters to expand and take the battle everywhere.

The occupation and its jailers have imprisoned our bodies, but our souls remain resisting and free.

We will not retreat, will not retreat, will not retreat.

Either victory or martyrdom.

Karim Younes

Isolation cells, Ramle Ayalon prison

1 comment:

  1. I doubt that the Palestinian hunger strike will achieve anything at all. Palestinians lives hold very little value to the West and Israel doesn't care.