Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?
For many years, the Palestinians have been chastised. Why don’t they try non-violence? Israeli liberal historian, Gershom Goremberg, asked “Why is there no Palestinian Gandhi, no Palestinian Martin Luther King?” Time’s Joe Klein wrote that “the Palestinian national movement has… never been known for dramatic acts of nonviolence. ‘If they’d been led by Gandhi rather than Yasser Arafat, they would have had a state 20 years ago’, Kenneth Pollack of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution” said.
Right now, Palestinians say around 2500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons are on hunger strike. The true number may be around 2800. Israel only admits to 1600, out of the 4600 Palestinians it is imprisoning.
This, by any measure, is an extraordinary demonstration of Gandhian non-violent resistance. Yet Australians have been largely shielded from hearing about this issue. In the Fairfax press, Ruth Pollard has had a few perfunctory reports on the hunger strikers. She reported on May 9
Israel’s highest court has rejected an appeal by two Palestinian hunger strikers against their continuing detention without trial, handing down what human rights groups say is a death sentence for the two men. Bilal Diab, 27, and Tha’er Halahleh, 33, have entered their 71st day without food and are at imminent risk of death, says the Physicians for Human Rights group, which expressed frustration that the Israeli Prison Service has repeatedly refused the group’s doctors and lawyers access to either man since April 30.
She noted further one of the major issues “driving the mass hunger strike”: Israel’s practice of what it calls administrative detention. This is where Palestinians are
jailed without charge… prisoners are not informed of the accusations or evidence against them, there is no trial and no opportunity to defend themselves. Around 308 Palestinians are being held under administrative detention. More than 15 of them have been held for two years or more, the human rights group B’Tselem said.
Diab has been subject to this type of due-process free detention for 9 months, Halahleh for 22 months. According to his wife, he has been held in administrative detention for over 6 years in total.
On day 75 of his hunger strike, he wrote a moving letter to his daughter. It begins:
My Beloved Lamar, forgive me because the occupation took me away from you, and took away from me the pleasure of witnessing my first born child that I have always prayed to God to see, to kiss, to be happy with. It is not your fault, this is our destiny as Palestinian people to have our lives and the lives of our children taken away from us, to be apart from each other and to have a miserable life, nothing is complete in our lives because of this unjust occupation that is lurking on every corner of our lives turning it into eeriness, a continuous pursuit and torture. Despite that I was deprived from holding you and hearing your voice, from watching you grow up and move around in the house and in your be, and that I was deprived of my rule as a human and a father with my daughter your existence has given me all the power and hope, and when I saw your picture with your mother in the sit-in tent, you were so calm staring in wonder at people, as if you were looking for your father, looking at my pictures that are hung inside the tent asking in silence why is my father not coming back, I felt that you are with me, in my sentiment and inside my mind, as if you are a part of my heartbeats, steadfast and the blood that flows in my veins, opening all doors for me spreading clear skies around me, and unleashing your free childish voice after this long silence.
Lamar my love: I know that you are not to be blamed and that you don’t yet understand why your father is going through this battle of the hunger strike for the 75th day, but when you grow up you will understand that the battle of freedom is the battle of going back to you, so that I can never be taken away from you again or to be deprived of your smile or seeing you, so that the occupier will never kidnap me again from you.
These are the stories we never hear about in Australia. There is a human dimension to the Palestinians, from which we are shielded. Palestinians may sometimes feature in “balanced” stories, where Israel claims it is the most moral country in the world, and a Palestinian alleges mistreatment.
To any reasonable person, the practice of locking someone up for years, without ever having proven they have done anything wrong – and indeed, not even alleging they have done anything wrong – is simply unjust.
Amazingly, Israel’s Public Security Minister responded to the hunger strikes by saying that whilst administrative detentions were still an “important tool”, Israel should “use it only if there’s a need and not in all cases.” As noted in progressive Israeli blog +972, this was an admission “that the practice is being used even when it is not necessary, if one accepts that it is ever necessary.”
In Pollard’s other report on the issue, she noted “The prison service has responded harshly to the mass hunger strike, placing prisoners in solitary confinement, issuing daily fines of 500 shekels ($132), denying electricity supplies and conducting random cell and body searches”, according to Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq.
Other issues being protested are harsher conditions imposed on Palestinian prisoners, as a form of punishment for the Palestinian capture of an Israeli soldier. As noted in the Daily Mail, well known for its conservative politics, “Some of the harshest measures brought in include a widespread use of solitary confinement – in some cases for years at a time – severe restrictions on family visits, and frequent strip-searches for both prisoners and visitors.” These measures have not been abolished, despite the release of the Israeli soldier.
Palestinians are thus on hunger strike, in protest of such things as being held for years without trial, during which they are not allowed to see their family, and when they are allowed to see family members, their family members are subjected to humiliating strip searches.
These are, thus, rather moderate demands. Indeed, a call for trials in the occupied territories seems grossly inadequate. There is a 99.7% conviction rate for Palestinians in the occupied territories, subject to Israeli military law. According to Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, “Only one Palestinian minor of 853 charged with rock-throwing between 2005-2010 was acquitted”. In order to achieve this impressive conviction rate – plainly indicative of the highest levels of due process – we should understand that
Because military law does not afford minors the same rights that they have under Israeli law, in many of the cases B’Tselem investigated, the minors were arrested at night, were not allowed to be accompanied by a parent or other adult when arrested, and were brought before a judge only eight days after being taken into custody.
The Palestinian children typically are then imprisoned for several months.
Since 1967, over 700 000 Palestinians have been detained under this military justice system. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination noted with extreme concern that Israel had set up “in the Occupied Palestinian Territory… two entirely separate legal systems and sets of institutions for Jewish communities grouped in illegal settlements on the one hand and Palestinian populations living in Palestinian towns and villages on the other hand”. CERD proceeded to draw “the State party’s attention to its General Recommendation 19 (1995) concerning the prevention, prohibition and eradication of all policies and practices of racial segregation and apartheid”.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu, one of South Africa’s leading moral voices, similarly declared that “This, in my book, is apartheid.” A few weeks ago, a conservative Palestinian and an Israeli journalist toured South Africa. They began by acknowledging a simple fact: “For understandable reasons, South Africa is a major source for the ‘Israel is apartheid’ accusation; it stems from the fact that many South Africans, especially blacks, relate Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to their own history of racial discrimination.” They noted that “Black trade unions join in the attacks and so do some people of Jewish origin.”
That is, “many” people who know apartheid best – black people in South Africa – recognise their experience in Palestine. And some Jewish people in South Africa recognise it too.
Yet this, too, remains difficult for Australians to understand. Australians have not been presented with the nature of Israel’s oppressive rule over the Palestinians. Australians have largely been presented with an image of Palestinians as crazy religious terrorists. If the Western media ignores the oppression of the Palestinians, and refuses to offer serious coverage of Palestinian non-violent resistance, it will only encourage the Palestinians to resort to violent forms of resistance. Now that there are perhaps 2800 Palestinian Gandhis, it is about time the West paid attention.