Palestinian hunger strike row draws solidarity, controversy

Sunday 21/05/2017
Experiencing deprivation. Arab League representatives drink water and salt during a solidarity event for Palestinian prisoners at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, on May 4. (Reuters)

London- Activists voiced sup­port for a hunger strike launched in mid-April by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails after an attempt to mock the strike’s leader.

The hunger strike, led by Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences for his role in the 2000-05 uprising known as the second intifada, is demand­ing better conditions for prisoners.

Palestinians said that more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners have kept up the hunger strike that be­gan April 17 but the Israeli authori­ties said 843 have refused to eat. Israel has refused to negotiate with the prisoners.

In an apparent bid to demoralise the hunger strikers, Israel’s Prison Services released a video purport­ing to show Barghouti secretly eat­ing. The video, which was featured on Israeli TV channels, was blasted as a fabrication by the Palestinians.

A still image of the video was then used in an advertisement on the Facebook page of Pizza Hut’s Israeli branch, which photo­shopped a pizza box and a slice of pizza into Barghouti’s prison cell. Superimposed on the image was a message asking whether Barghouti would have rather broken his hun­ger strike with a pizza.

The ad, which was subsequently deleted, led to an online campaign to boycott the restaurant chain, with the hashtag #Boycott_Pizza­Hut trending on Twitter. Pizza Hut apologised for the “completely in­appropriate” post and fired the ad­vertising firm responsible for the ad.

Barghouti denied the authentic­ity of the video, his lawyer Khader Shkirat said, after meeting with his client on May 14 — their first meet­ing since the hunger strike began. Barghouti’s weight loss “is clear on his face and his body,” Shkirat told the Associated Press (AP). The law­yer said Barghouti said he planned “to escalate my hunger strike soon. I will stop drinking water.”

Israeli officials insisted that the video was authentic. In an opinion article published in Haaretz, Iris Leal wrote: “Barghouti betrayed the people who trusted him.” She added: “His surrender to the al­mond-flavored object of his desire arouses doubt as to whether he is made of the right stuff.”

The Israeli claims appear to have backfired amid a Palestinian out­rage at what they see as an attempt to discredit Bargouthi and other the hunger strikers.

“The fabricated video shows the defeat of the occupation before the prisoners’ steadfastness,” said Fadwa Barghouti, Marwan’s wife at a news conference. “We expect­ed nothing else but psychological warfare.”

The original Israeli video drew condemnation from Human Rights Watch (HRW).

HRW Regional Director Sari Bashi told the AP that the video “raises questions about the viola­tion of the right to privacy.” She added that it was problematic to “make an allegation against some­body who is in your custody and then hold him incommunicado so he cannot respond to that allega­tion.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited the hunger strikers but declined to discuss their specific conditions in public.

Dr Zeratzion Hishal, an Eritrean- Dutch doctor working with ICRC who visited the hunger strikers, spoke to Agence France-Presse about the typical condition of hunger strikers, saying: “[After a period of 50 days,] we expect se­rious complications such as organ failure and even death.”

Israeli prison authorities said several dozen hunger-strikers had been moved to areas where they can receive additional medical su­pervision.

Activists supporting the Pal­estinian hunger strikers have launched an online campaign to highlight the plight of prisoners by posting videos of themselves drinking saltwater, leading to the hashtag #SaltWaterChallenge trending on Twitter.

“Saltwater is symbolic of prison­er hunger strikes because in these protests the detainees generally abstain from food but consume saltwater as a means of steadying their health,” wrote Leila Diab on the website

Support for the hunger strikes has not been confined to virtual reality. Palestinian protesters also took to the streets in a show of soli­darity with the prisoners.

The Palestinian Health Ministry said a 20-year-old man was killed May 12 by Israeli gunfire during clashes near Ramallah in the West Bank. Six other protesters were re­portedly wounded.

There are an estimated 6,500 Palestinians jailed by Israel for se­curity reasons, several hundred of whom are being held without charges or trial.