Approximately 1,200 Palestinian prisoners are in a second week of a hunger strike, following the controversial publication of an op-ed in the New York Times by the high-profile prisoner Marwan Barghouti. The hunger strike has brought renewed attention to the issue of imprisonment in Israel, where the approximately 6,500 Palestinians incarcerated in Israeli jails are viewed as convicted terrorists by most Israelis, but considered political prisoners by most Palestinians.
Hunger strikes are not new in Israel. However, as the first mass collective strike in several years, this strike is notable, especially with the leadership of Barghouti who — despite serving multiple life sentences — is often compared to Nelson Mandela and enjoys popular support in Palestinian polls.
Many misconceptions about the hunger strike remain. My research with both ex-prisoners and former members of Israel’s security sector counter several common myths.
Myth No. 1: Prisoners are striking to get released from prison.
Palestinian hunger strikes, like those undertaken in Northern Ireland and South Africa, are usually focused on improving conditions and seeking rights inside the prisons, articulated to prison authorities via a list of demands. In past strikes, demands have included increasing the number of blankets, giving more time in the yard and granting access to books, radios and television.
In the current strike, the primary demand is to ensure regular family visits. Israeli prison policy allows for two monthly family visits; however, because family members in the West Bank and Gaza must apply for permits to travel to Israel (which are often denied), some prisoners have gone years without a family visit. Also, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reduced coordinated family visits in the summer citing budgetary limitations.
Other demands include pay phones to make family calls, improved medical services and an end to administrative detention (detention without charge or trial).
Myth No. 2: All Palestinian prisoners are terrorists.
The majority of the 6,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israel are convicted on charges related to terrorism. However, according to the Israel Prison Service (IPS), the true number of “security prisoners” is about half, with other prisoners being members of groups supporting armed resistance, or individuals who were involved in operations as drivers, couriers or abettors.
Many Palestinians are charged and convicted of acts of popular resistance that are clearly distinct from acts of terrorism, such as throwing stones, a crime that since 2015 has been punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Even activists engaged in nonviolent protest are regularly arrested and charged with crimes of “incitement” and “organizing and participating in an illegal demonstration.”
The majority of convictions take place in Israel’s military court system in the West Bank. In this system, those arrested can be held for up to 60 days without access to a lawyer, a period in which interrogations yield “confessions” that are then used in court as primary evidence, resulting in a conviction rate of more than 99 percent.
Myth No. 3: Conditions in Israeli prisons are especially harsh.
The ICRC makes regular visits to Israeli prisons, and facilities are typically in line with international standards. The area of far greater concern is Israel’s criminal justice system in the Occupied Territories, which allows for mass arrests, widespread use of administrative detention and interrogation methods that include cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.
Approximately 40 percent of Palestinian males have been arrested or detained at some time. Not all those arrested are charged or convicted, but many are detained for several days or weeks at a time and subject to interrogations. Most detainees are either charged in the military court or released. However, others are held without charge or trial in administrative detention for renewable periods of up to 90 days.
This form of internment is permissible under international law, but only as an exceptional measure in extreme cases. There are approximately 500 Palestinian administrative detainees, reflecting excess use that has been criticized by the United Nations, the European Union and human rights organizations.
Myth No. 4: Palestinian prisoners are pawns of their political leaders.
Palestinian politicians from all parties have sought to leverage prisoners. However, since the 1970s, Palestinian prisoners have demonstrated agency in self-organizing.
Today, Barghouti’s leadership in the strike may be a political move to augment his own standing in Fatah and push back against the Palestinian Authority, which will have to balance between publicly supporting the prisoners while also trying to control related protests and demonstrations across the West Bank. The timing is especially tricky for President Mahmoud Abbas as he seeks to maintain weak internal standing while also preparing to visit the United States in May.
As the strike continues, prisoners’ decisions to maintain it will become increasingly individual. While each person is different, the body typically begins to break down after three weeks on hunger strike. Most prisoners who commit to a long-term strike are motivated by personal conviction and not solely by political direction.
Myth No. 5: Israel doesn’t negotiate with prisoners.
The Israeli government publicly stated that it won’t negotiate with the prisoners. However, the IPS has negotiated with prisoners in the past. Negotiations are usually preceded by other attempts to break the strike, however, including punishments such as solitary confinement or force-feeding.
The traditional logic of hunger strikes is that the state will negotiate in the face of intense international pressure or local protests and demonstrations that threaten internal stability. However, it is unlikely that solidarity mobilization will be sustained to that level. Any push by Israel to resolve this hunger strike will most likely be motivated more by a desire to halt Barghouti’s political momentum.
It is most likely that Israel will try to wait out the strike or negotiate on rights that are rolled back during the strike. However, even if none or few of the demands are met, the strike has rattled Israeli leaders and is prompting difficult conversations on the issue of prisoners, which will continue to be a source of controversy but also potentially compromise future negotiations.
Julie M. Norman is a research fellow at the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security, and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast.