by BAR editor and columnist Jemima Pierre
“The Palestinian cry for dignity especially demands Black support” – today, as thousands of Palestinian prisoners emerge from a long hunger strike, just as in the late Sixties, during the Black Freedom Movement. Under an apartheid legal system, the “Palestinians have been subjected to an arbitrary system of military law.”
Black Solidarity With Palestine
by BAR editor and columnist Jemima Pierre
“Going through Israeli checkpoints is like going back in time to American Civil Rights struggle.”
More than 2000 Palestinians in Israeli government prisons have been on an open-ended hunger strike since April 17. This general strike was inspired by the 66-day strike of Khader Adnan, beginning December 11, which was followed by Hana Al-Shalabi’s 43-day strike in February, and the 77-day strikes of Thaer Halahleh and Bilal Diab. Adnan, a 33-year old Palestinian activist who was working as a baker while studying at the university, had been detained numerous times by the Israeli authorities, spending a total of six years of prison since 1999. Yet no formal charges were ever filed against him. On December 17, 2011, he was arrested again – this time in the middle of the night and in front of his two daughters. The next day, he decided he had had enough and began his hunger strike. Due to growing international pressure – and the possible public relations repercussions if the strikers died – the Israeli government eventually settled with these earlier political prisoners in ways that diminished their sentences, and ensured their eventual release from prison. The Western press has, as of yesterday, May 15th, reported the general prisoner strike completely over, yet there remain conflicting reports as to whether this claim is fully legitimate. Whatever the case may be, it is important to understand the significance of this heroic movement on the part of these Palestinian prisoners, and to recognize the strike – as well as the larger plight of Palestinian peoples – as part the global fight for human liberation against tyranny and oppression.
“Prisoners are held for years at a time without due process.”
Palestinian prisoners are protesting Israel’s long-standing policy of “administrative detention” – a practice of detaining any Palestinian suspected of an unknown crime or unspecified violation for six months at a time without formally charging them or revealing any evidence against them. The six-month detention can then be renewed indefinitely, which has ensured that prisoners are held for years at a time without due process. Prisoners are also protesting the punitive measures imposed by the Israeli authorities, including solitary confinement, extremely limited family visits, violence, threats of sexual abuse, threats of assault against family members, and medical neglect.
According to the activists, there are currently more than 4600 Palestinian political prisoners, including 218 children and 27 elected members of Parliament, in Israeli prisons and detention centers. Of these, more than 300 are under administrative detention. As the online magazine Green Left reports, even while the majority of prisoners are not in administrative detention, it “does not mean they have been accorded due legal process. Under the apartheid legal system…Palestinians have been subjected to an arbitrary system of military law.” This military law criminalizes just about everything that Palestinians do to challenge their treatment – including organizing or taking part in protests or assemblies, waving flags, displaying political symbols or distributing political materials. In effect, Palestinians are subject to imprisonment for anything that Israeli military occupation forces deem illegal.
Of course all this can only make sense if we recognize that Palestinians are living under military occupation, a stifling and racist apartheid system. May 15, 1948 (the Nakba or “The Catastrophe”) marks the date when Israel drove more than 700,000 Palestinians off their land, with hundreds of thousands landing – and remaining until this day – in refugee camps. (Today, there are more than 4 million registered Palestinian refugees worldwide.) Since then, the constant land grabbing and state-sponsored terror by the Israeli government, have left Palestinians as refugees in their own land, separated from family and friends by road blocks and walls, cramped in the open air prison that is the Gaza strip, under constant surveillance, and brutalized by military force, including bombing, assassinations, and indefinite detentions.
“There are currently more than 4600 Palestinian political prisoners, including 218 children and 27 elected members of Parliament, in Israeli prisons and detention centers.”
What is remarkable is how this Israeli apartheid regime, and the attendant Palestinian disenfranchisement, has been normalized. Israel is considered a liberal Western state with equal rights and opportunity, and in its attempt to whitewash its violations of international law, it has sought to present itself as enlightened and democratic. It is considered so “vulnerable” a state that it benefits from US government military aid to the tune of $3 billion per year. Its lobbyists and public relations machine work to challenge any call against the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians, particularly its continued theft of land and racist brutality. It is this normalization that has allowed many to remain quiet in the face of such inexcusable barbarity; it is also what has made the brave and consistent Palestinian resistance to this occupation difficult to accept and champion.
This is why this hunger strike is important. In the face of the normalization of Israeli terror, increasing subjugation, lack of legal recourse, and lack of access to the outside world, a hunger strike is the most significant nonviolent resistance. At this point, hunger strikes are some of the few remaining tools available to Palestinians. “Hunger for Dignity” has been their rallying cry, and it has galvanized Palestinian society. Thousands have been emboldened by the bravery of the strikers, taking to the streets express support even in the face of mass arrests and more detention.
“Thousands have been emboldened by the bravery of the strikers.”
The Palestinian cry for dignity especially demands Black support. While the predicament of Palestinians is rarely mentioned in prominent Black circles, Palestine was an important issue during the Black Power years as radicals identified with and embraced the anticolonial struggle against Israel. Huey Newton, even under allegations of anti-Semitism, stated, “…we are not against the Jewish people. We are against that government that will persecute the Palestinian people…The Palestinian people are living in hovels, they don’t have any land, they’ve been stripped and murdered; and we cannot support that for any reason.” More recently, Alice Walker’s experiences in Gaza and the West Bank, demonstrated to her that the struggles for human dignity and freedom are similar everywhere, that, for subjugated populations, those in power don’t see them as human beings. She made the direct connection to the Black experience: “Going through Israeli checkpoints is like going back in time to American Civil Rights struggle.” Here, she echoes scholar Robin D. G. Kelley who, in his travels through the occupied territories, passing through checkpoints, observing day to day oppression and dispossession, described the situation in these terms: “I witnessed a level of racist violence that I hadn’t even seen growing up as a black person here in the States…I have to say, and I’ve been beat by the cops. The level of racist violence from the settlers is kind of astounding.”
But it is not just these specific experiences of witnesses that should galvanize our people in support of the Palestinians. Kelley makes a further point that, for “anyone who supports social justice and self-determination,” anyone who has respect for the right of any people to exist, support for the Palestinian cause is crucial. Indeed, as human beings, and especially as human beings with a history of disenfranchisement and racial terror, and as people who are against all forms of oppression, we cannot look away. And if the hunger strikes are indeed over, then we can claim this to be the victorious renewal in the struggle for human dignity. But let this be the beginning of a renewed struggle in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Palestine.
Jemima Pierre can be reached at [email protected].