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Solidarity activists turn to social media to raise awareness of hunger strikers

January 30, 2014 at 2:37 am

“After I stop eating, how many days does it take before the hunger pains go away? How long will I continue to suffer from thirst? And how many days can I go before I risk dying?”

Fortunately most of us will never have to ask these questions, let alone experience the horrific answers. Instead we have the privilege to learn online from Visualizing Palestine’s excellent infographic that it takes two or three days for our stomach cramps to disappear, 15 days before we lose our sensation of thirst, and 45 days before we put our heart at risk of failure.

However, Palestinian prisoners do not have the same privilege, and many of them have intimately come to know the answers to these questions after being unjustly detained in Israeli jails and held under inhumane conditions. Oppressed by Israeli’s apartheid system of injustice, and experiencing a kind of suffering that is invisible to the rest of the world, many of these prisoners have no other choice but to go on hunger strikes to demand justice.

For example, after being arrested in December 2011 and held without charge, Khader Adnan went on a full hunger strike for 66 days before Israel capitulated and agreed to his release. Shortly afterwards, around 1,500 Palestinian prisoners launched a mass hunger strike to protest against the Israeli practice of ‘administrative detention,’ a policy that allows the occupation authorities to indefinitely detain Palestinians based on ‘secret information’ and without any formal charges or due process. Most of these detainees are also denied visits with their families, as well as adequate medical attention.

Many other Palestinian prisoners have also used hunger strikes to demand freedom and justice in recent years, and today the Palestinian-Jordanian prisoner Alaa Hammad has been on a hunger strike since May, only drinking water and taking vitamins. According to his lawyer, Iyad Al-Dababseh, Hammad is currently in Soroka hospital due to his deteriorating health condition. All the while the occupation authorities have continued to shackle his hands and feet to the bed.

Hammad, who was born in Jerusalem, was arrested in 2006 and sentenced to 12 years in prison after confessing to several alleged crimes under torture, including planning to kidnap an Israeli soldier in order to make a prisoner exchange and contacting Syria, a country that Israel considers to be hostile. During the first six years of his sentence, Hammad underwent several hunger strikes just to be granted contact with his family so that his six children could better know that they still have a father who loves them.

On 2 May 2012, Hammad and four other Jordanian prisoners started the Al-Karama Martyrs’ Strike to demand that the Jordanian government either work for their release or pressure the Israelis to deport them back to Jordan to complete their sentences, which is their right as per an agreement between the two countries. The four other protesters ended their strike after more than 100 days of hunger, causing serious damage to their health, when an agreement was reached to improve their prison conditions and visitation rights. But until his demands are met, Hammad has heroically refused to stop his hunger strike, which is now approaching 170 days.

Since then Hammad’s health has continued to deteriorate, and the recovering hunger strikers are still waiting to see their families, months after the agreement with Israel was reached.

According to Ayat Alzaatreh, a solidarity activist based in Jordan, since the Al-Karama strike began activists in Jordan have organised daily demonstrations to try to pressure the Jordanian government to take action, but so far with little success. In London activists have held two solidarity protests in recent months and on Monday Palestinians in Gaza rallied outside the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in support of Hammad.

However, most people probably do not know anything about the Jordanians’ hunger strike, as well as the solidarity protests that they have inspired, because the mainstream media has repeatedly ignored the plight of Hammad and the inspirational story of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails who refuse to eat in the name of freedom and justice.

As a result of the mainstream media blackout, solidarity activists have been campaigning tirelessly on social media to try to raise awareness about the hunger strikers, to pressure the mainstream media to cover their nonviolent struggle for freedom, and to educate the world about the unjust treatment that Palestinian prisoners receive in Israeli jails.

This type of action is especially important in the case of hunger striking prisoners because their method of protest causes serious damage to their health. As Alzaatreh explains, “we don’t have much time to wait and these days social networks are the quickest way to send information about any particular issue to the largest number of people possible, as well as to institutes, journalists and public figures. Social media campaigns raise awareness about our cause and directly reach out to those who believe in justice in a way that they may hear us and help us to put more pressure on decision-makers and humanitarian institutes in the quickest way possible, pushing them to take the necessary measures.”

According to Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, Israel has detained over 650,000 Palestinians since 1967. This means that around 40 per cent of Palestinian men living in the West Bank and Gaza have spent time in Israeli prisons. Today, Addameer reports that there are over 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. 137 of these prisoners are being held in “administrative detention,” and 180 of them are children.

Activists Around the World for Palestine, a Facebook group that currently has almost 150,000 members, recently launched a Twitter campaign to raise awareness of Hammad’s hunger strike. To increase the campaign’s effectiveness, activists tweet at a particular time each day to flood the Twittersphere with updates about his struggle. In the coming days and weeks the activists involved in the campaign also hope to organise demonstrations around the world in support of Hammad and all the Palestinian prisoners who are suffering in Israeli jails.

The group successfully waged similar campaigns in the past for Khader Adnan as well as Samer Issawi, whose partial hunger strike lasted for nine months before the occupation authorities agreed to a deal that will hopefully see him released early next year.

Social media activism in support of Palestinian rights is especially important because the occupation authorities are spending vast resources to dominate social media in the same way that they dominate the mainstream media. Indeed, in August of this year the Electronic Intifada (EI) reported that Israel now plans to take its hasbara, or public relations campaign, to another level.

EI had previously uncovered that the National Union of Israeli Students was “already a full-time partner in Israeli government propaganda” efforts, setting up “a project to pay Israeli university students up to $2,000 to spread propaganda online.”

But EI reveals that the effort is now being centralised: “The Israeli prime minister’s office is organizing Israeli students in ‘covert’ and ‘semi-military’ style units to tweet and post pro-Israel messages on social media without revealing [that] they are doing it as part of a government propaganda campaign.”

Supporters of Israel have also paid students to actively promote hasbara in the US. Since 2001, Aish International has been supporting an initiative called “Hasbara Fellowships,” which describes itself as “a leading pro-Israel campus activism organization working with over 120 Universities across North America.” According to its web site, the Hasbara Fellowships programme sponsors students to travel to “Israel every summer and winter, giving them the information and tools to return to their campuses as educators about Israel. So far, Hasbara Fellowships has educated over 2,000 students on over 250 campuses.”

Aish International is the fundraising arm of the right wing Israeli organisation Aish HaTorah, which has links to the Clarion Fund, a pro-Zionist organisation in New York City that has been involved in the production or distribution of anti-Islam propaganda films, including the controversial “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West.”

Thus social media activism offers an opportunity not only to campaign and to educate, but also to deny Israel the opportunity of expanding its occupation of Palestine into the digital sphere. While it is only one of many tactics in the on-going struggle to liberate Palestine, participating in the online efforts to support Palestinian hunger strikers, or any others demanding freedom, justice and equality for Palestinians, does, in its own small way, help to confront the occupation.

And while our privilege means that we will never have to know what it is like to live 45 days without food, thus putting our lives in danger, it also means that we probably have the means to help raise the voices of others who do put their lives in danger while demanding freedom and justice for Palestine. Whether it is through social media activism, organising demonstrations, reaching out to journalists or pressuring politicians, all of us have the responsibility to act.

Alzaatreh says that she is in regular contact with members of Hammad’s family, who have been comforted by activists’ on-going efforts to raise his voice. Her hope is not to let them down, and to help Alaa’s six children be able to grow up alongside their father.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.