The hunger strike that Palestinian journalist Muhammad Al-Qeeq started in an Israeli detention centre lasted 94 days before he was released in May 2016. It was, he told me, a “last resort” in the face of “Israeli racism”.
Today he is well-known for highlighting the plight of Palestinians held by Israel. Often held indefinitely in crowded cells under “administrative detention” orders, they now have to get through the Covid-19 pandemic without any adequate measures to protect them. The controversial administrative detention system allows Israel to hold Palestinians — it is only used against Palestinians — with neither charge nor trial for renewable periods of six months, meaning that, potentially, they can be jailed for life without ever seeing the inside of a courtroom.
Al-Qeeq’s arrest in November 2015 was not his first. He laughed as he told me that the Israeli authorities deemed him to be a threat because of his work. He was arrested on suspicions of involvement with Hamas in terrorism against Israel.
“The Israeli occupation forces attacked our house and broke down the door,” he explained. “My daughter was only one years old. She woke up screaming. My wife tried to comfort her as they watched me get hit and dragged out of the house.”
He was taken to be interrogated at Al-Jalame Detention Centre in northern Israel. “They cursed me and threatened that they would never let me see my wife and children again if I didn’t confess.”
He wasn’t allowed to speak to a lawyer as he was told repeatedly to sign a “confession” that he engaged in “media incitement” against the state. He refused to do so. When he asked on what charges he was being held, he was apparently told, “No charges. We think you target Israelis.”
During the interrogation process he was shackled, assaulted, spat on and urinated on, and left in cells under the most horrific conditions. “For no apparent reason.”
Meanwhile, his family was left in the dark, and his wife, Fayha Shalash, applied for family visits but was turned down. Shalash is also a journalist based in Birzeit in the occupied West Bank. She only found out that his detention had been extended several times through the media. That’s also how she learnt about his hunger strike.
“This was all political,” said Al-Qeeq. “They targeted me just because I work in the media. It is important to understand this. You will find hundreds of Palestinians who work in the media forced into Israeli jails without any charges.” The issue, he pointed out, is not being talked about anywhere near enough.
Israel takes extreme measures to block any accurate reporting of the violations and crimes committed by its security forces in the occupied Palestinian territories. As Al-Qeeq is keen to point out, his is just one of dozens of similar cases.
Following his imprisonment, Shalash became his international spokesperson. She contacted the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society (PPS), an NGO that supports Palestinian political prisoners, and was informed by lawyer Saleh Ayoub, who had seen Al-Qeeq, that he was tried in a closed court session.
“As I was taken back to my cell, I shouted ‘I am prisoner Muhammad Al-Qeeq. Tell my family and the media that I am on an open hunger strike. I am currently held at Al-Jalame’ in the hope that Ayoub would hear.”
Going on an open-ended hunger strike was not an easy decision to make. He only did so once he was ready to accept death. “When you’re abused in such vile ways, and forbidden visits from lawyers and family while they scream and threaten to keep extending my years in detention, the torment pushed me to go on a hunger strike in protest against such mistreatment and policies. It was the last resort against Israeli racism in occupied Palestine.”
Living on nothing but water, Al-Qeeq soon began to vomit yellow bile and blood. Nevertheless, he vowed to continue his hunger strike until he was released, one way or another. He became the focus of Palestinian prisoner activism to put pressure on the Israeli government and society.
It seemed to work. Human rights groups criticised his detention. The EU announced that it was “especially concerned” about his deteriorating condition. “Detainees have the right to be informed about the charges underlying any detention, must be granted access to legal assistance, and be subject to a fair trial,” insisted a spokesperson for the European bloc.
According to Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, at the end of April this year Israel was holding 4,331 Palestinian prisoners, of whom 371 are held under administrative detention and “at least 168” are children. Apart from the concerns about the absence of fair trials, many are refused adequate medical care as well as visits from their lawyers and families. For the latter, this is yet another aspect of Israel’s brutal military occupation that they have to cope with, in addition to the ever-present backdrop of Israeli settler-colonialism, siege, checkpoints and oppression.
The plight of prisoners remains central to the Palestinian cause, especially given that Israel uses detention to crush resistance to its occupation. This is attempted in a variety of ways.
“Solitary confinement breaks the spirit of revolution in Palestinians,” said Al-Qeeq. “The general target for Israeli prison officers and detention is to end the spirit of resistance among the Palestinians. It is also Israeli policy to ban any talk about Palestinian prisoners.” If any radio stations, TV programmes or newspapers talk about prisoners in the occupied West Bank to raise awareness, Israeli security forces attack and close down the media company in question.
Al-Qeeq noted that it is a major concern that the Israeli occupation authorities insist on hindering the work of journalists, especially Palestinians, who have a right to document Israel’s crimes and violations of international laws. Many pay with their life. Dozens of journalists have been killed and wounded while covering the Great March of Return protests in the Gaza Strip since 30 March 2018, for example.
“The Israelis want to portray Palestinian journalists as terrorists. That’s all that they wanted from me, but I rejected all charges.” His intention was never simply to die, he said, but to send a message of resistance, even if the price was his life.
“Despite what the Arab countries are doing to Palestine — abandoning and boycotting us to normalise relations with Israel — we Palestinians are strong,” concluded Muhammad Al-Qeeq. “I will be free. I will express my opinion. And I will receive justice.”