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Hunger strike is the only choice left for Palestinian prisoners

Ahmed Rimawi was arrested at the age of 17. He has been in an Israeli prison for 1 year and 7 months- kept behind bars without charge and without trial.

He is now the youngest of an estimated 125 to 200 Palestinian prisoners residing in Israeli jails on a mass hunger strike – Israel’s access restrictions means an exact number is difficult to ascertain. They are protesting the practice of Administrative Detention – a policy that has ensured Ahmed, and many other prisoners, remain incarcerated with no idea why.

“On his way to the school the Israeli soldiers stopped him,” said his mother Um Ahmed from her home in a village outside Ramallah, West Bank. “After holding him at the checkpoint for 24 hours, they took him to prison. They kept him there for 6 months, then 6 months, then another 6 months, and we still don’t know why,” she said.

Under Administrative Detention, Israel can detain an individual for up to six months, which can be renewed an indefinite amount of times. Detainees are not informed of the reasons of their detention; neither are their lawyers- their files are classified as ‘secret.’ There are currently 183 Palestinian prisoners in Administrative Detention.

Ahmed has reached his 31st day of hunger strike. His mother is growing more concerned as the days pass. She worries as both a mother, and a wife- for Ahmed’s father Ishraq is also on hunger strike. Serving a 19 year sentence in the same jail as his son, he joined the strike within hours of discovering Ahmed’s participation.

According to Um Ahmed, a lawyer managed to visit her husband yesterday, however the whereabouts of her son is unknown. Her husband has an infection in his colon which has prevented him from taking salt- a lifeline for the long term hunger strikers.

“I worry yes, but this issue lives in every Palestinian household,” she said.

The Israeli Prison Service has reportedly been denying the hunger strikers the lifesaving salt, alongside accusations that the authorities are punishing the prisoners for their choice.

According to one hunger striker who spoke with lawyer Mahmoud Hassan from Addameer, a prisoner’s rights group, the detainees in the Naqab Prison have all been transferred to an isolated section, separate from the other prisoners. They have been ill-treated; suffering from daily searches of their cells and being permitted to change their undergarments only twice since the beginning of the strike. They are bound and handcuffed in their cells for ten hours a day.

If the Israeli Prison Service’s most recent proposed bill to legalise force-feeding is approved in the Knesset, hunger strikers may face even harsher punishments.

Dr. Mithal Naser from the organisation, Physicians for Human Rights- Israel, explained what the 31st day of a hunger strike is like from a medical perspective- “This person is in a very serious and sensitive state- we have to be very worried. As doctors, we have to monitor them 24 hours a day for the pulse, run constant ECG’s, blood tests daily due to electrolyte abnormality.”

While in the first 48 hours of a hunger strike the body suffers predominantly from fatigue, the symptoms after this stage are more alarming. “Past 72 hours the body starts looking for sources of energy in other places, this source is muscle mass. The heart is a muscle in itself, and so the heart can fail, we would be concerned about sudden death, renal failure, kidney failure…”

While she claims the salt keeps the hunger strikers alive, she says, “Being alive is not just a matter of living, they will have serious damage later that you can’t treat”

“We are talking about young people with serious irreversible damage, not just physical, but intellectual and psychological,” said Dr. Naser.

All Palestinian prisoners who have participated since the announcement of the hunger strike on April 24th, were reportedly hospitalized yesterday. Speaking to AFP, the Palestinian prisoner minister Issa Qaraqe said some of the strikers were in a “very grave” condition. “Most are vomiting blood and fainting. They can’t walk, they’re in terrible pain,” he said. “We are afraid some will die if the situation continues.”

The protest has come to the attention of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki- moon, and relatives of the detainees also have appealed to Pope Francis. The International Committee of the Red Cross has yet to issue a statement, causing protestors to shut down the organisations Ramallah offices.

Hunger striking is a form of peaceful protest that has been used by the likes of iconic Indian leader Mahatma Ghandi and Irish activist Bobby Sands, who died after 66 days of hunger strike.

Palestinian detainee Samer Issawi became a national hero after refusing food for over 8 months and negotiating early release as he reached the brink of death. In 2012, an estimated 2000 prisoners went on hunger strike, demanding an end to administrative detention, isolation and other punitive measures they faced.

While the incarceration of Ahmed was a tragic event for the Rimawi family, it offered the father and son the first chance to hold each other in over 12 years. Um Fadi explained that after Ishraq asked for 6 months to be placed in the same prison as his son, the request was eventually granted. Two prisoners who were released from that prison came to her home to tell the story of their reunion.

“They told me there was not one prisoner who wasn’t crying,” she said.

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

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