Without oral testimonies, a good part of history is thrown into oblivion. What remains, then, is the reported, or publicised façade, one that disseminates a rudimentary sketch while abandoning the protagonists. Palestinian political prisoners face similar oblivion. Once in a while, international media sensationalises hunger strikes and the furore dies down once an agreement is reached. To read beyond the reports, it is necessary to look at the anti-colonial struggle and what is at stake when liberation is denied.
In the foreword to “A Shared Struggle: Stories of Palestinian and Irish Hunger Strikers” (An Fhuisegg, 2021), Richard Falk writes, “Symbolic politics have often, eventually, controlled the outcomes of prolonged struggles against oppressive state actors.” Prevailing at all costs, as Falk notes, is that the narrative about political prisoners is usually missing.
The book draws upon stories from both Palestinian and Irish hunger strikers. The “shared struggle” refers to the colonial violence and oppression experienced by Palestinian and Irish prisoners through their respective histories. For the Irish hunger striking prisoners, the right to be recognised as political prisoners by the British authorities played a major role in their resistance activities. In the case of Palestinian prisoners, the right to better conditions in jail is just one aspect of the hunger strike. Reading through the narratives in this book, liberation through an ongoing and mobilised struggle is the ultimate aim.
Yet, despite differences, the 1981 hunger strikes carried out by Irish political prisoners encountered better media coverage by the Western press, thus contributing to better mobilisation. Palestinians, on the other hand, have had to contend with sporadic attention from mainstream media, which champions Israel’s neoliberal and expansionist agenda. Publicity, therefore, in the Palestinian prisoners’ case, is juxtaposed against a system that reports the Palestinian narrative through the persistent downplaying of their struggle.
Irish narratives compiled in this book stress the importance of media publicity as one of the main reasons whether a hunger strike is successful or not. A Palestinian hunger strike, carried out individually or as a collective act of resistance and resilience, needs to be portrayed from within the prisoners’ experience of the colonial context. Only then can Palestinian prisoners’ narratives resound impactfully outside Palestine.
“What changes the prisoners’ conditions and prevents the occupation from violating international laws and inmates’ rights is the popular support from prisoners, governments and organisations worldwide, who support the Palestinian cause,” former Palestinian prisoner and hunger striker, Mohammed Al-Dirawi, writes.
Palestinians have not yet reached this level of support, so entrenched is the international community in passively or actively supporting Israel’s violations. It is through this realisation that the Palestinian hunger strikers’ narratives are read with a different understanding. The refusal of food is what attracts media attention. What drives Palestinian hunger strikers to risk death is usually eliminated from scrutiny. After all, in what context would Israel explain its force-feeding of hunger striking prisoners, for example, not only to avoid the bad publicity of a hunger striker dying in prison, but also to continue establishing its corrupt authority within the prison system and force the prisoners to end the strike.
If Palestinian anti-colonial resistance is learned through the prisoners’ struggle, more cohesion in the narratives would appear. Mohammed Al-Qeeq says of his hunger strike, “For every free person who has wrongly suffered under the occupier’s hatred and injustices, a hunger striker feeds his personal dignity and fulfils his commitment in the quest for human rights.”
The hunger striking Palestinian prisoner bears a historic responsibility towards the people. In a way, a hunger strike is representative not only of the prisoners’ struggle, but of the wider anti-colonial resistance. On an individual level, there is the personal struggle between the hunger striker and the prison authorities. However, as in the case of the Irish hunger strikers, the symbolism needs to extend beyond the confines of jail.
Mohammed Alian, who witnessed a fellow hunger striker being force-fed in Ramleh prison, states, “The cell was too narrow for my dreams and imagination.” Aymen Al-Sharawna, a hunger striker who rose to prominence after his release in the Gilad Shalit deal and subsequent re-arrest, described his hunger strike as “not as much a challenge but a battle that grew between me and my jailer.”
Hunger strikes, therefore, are not optional for those willing to resist. Just as anti-colonial resistance outside of jail is not an option if liberation is to be achieved. The Irish struggle portrays this concept clearly, not only due to its achievement but also as a result of its publicity. The terror narrative applied to the Irish Republicans might have served the British narrative but, for the prisoners, it was imperative that their struggle is registered as political, and that their status should be recognised accordingly.
Likewise, the Palestinian people have been tarnished with Israel’s terror and security narrative. How would the Palestinian people’s anti-colonial resistance be perceived if Israel’s political persecution and colonial violence were to be internationally acknowledged?
As harrowing as the narratives in this book may read, it is the clarity and determination of will that emanates so prominently. Bringing the Palestinian and Irish experience together shows, not only solidarity, but also the gaps in the international narrative to render the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle more visibly and authentically articulated.