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What Palestinian political prisoners are fighting for

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by Ameer Mahkoul

20-3-2012
Someone with back turned to camera spray paints "Peace not apartheid" and Khader Adnan stencil on West Bank wall

Khader Adnan’s hunger strike was in protest of Israel’s entire system of repression.

The case of the freedom fighter Khader Adnan reminds us of where the strength of the Palestinian people lies. This is the strength that was squandered and dissipated in the Oslo process and the pursuit of a state at the expense of national liberation.

With his historic hunger strike and his heroic resolve in his fight against the occupying state, Adnan has reaffirmed an important principle of resistance to colonialist regimes: when the people, or individuals, who are their victims remain resolute, the world will react. Sympathy turns into solidarity, and that in turn can nurture a growing movement of support for the struggle which is capable of shaking the foundations of the colonialist system.

His case has also confirmed the fact that the colonizer’s agencies can never protect its victim. Its project can only be defeated by breaking the dominance of those agencies and the rules they enforce.

Adnan’s battle for life and dignity is a model to be emulated in the Palestinian liberation struggle. It has lessons to offer the participants in that struggle, including prisoners and international solidarity activists, on how their work can be integrated.

Campaign of defiance

Adnan seized the initiative and declared an open-ended hunger strike to protest against his imprisonment under an administrative detention order. His aim was clear: to defy both the order and the Israeli system of oppression. He also was seeking to serve notice that Palestinians refuse to accept the treatment meted out to them by the occupation authorities.

The campaign he triggered illustrated how the components of popular struggle can be brought together. Inspired by the prisoner’s determination, Palestinians in the 1948 territories responded quickly. A popular media and mobilization campaign was rapidly launched, both locally and internationally. A variety of youth and other grassroots organizations became immediately involved, as did prisoners’ families and political groups.

This activism soon spread to the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem. It also spread among the Palestinian diaspora and spawned a formidable worldwide movement.

Prisoners in Israeli jails also launched a campaign to champion, support and share the responsibility with Adnan. They adopted the principles of organized collective escalation, which began by rejecting meals and refusing to receive supplies (the prison authorities responded by closing off the open-air courtyards and preventing the prisoners from leaving their cells). Growing numbers also declared open-ended hunger strikes.

Israel’s weak link

The prisoners knew that their battle was not with the prison authorities per se, but the occupation state as a system, with all its extensions and institutions. But the prison authorities were the weak link within the security apparatus on which pressure could be applied. The prisoners thus sent a message to the government of Israel that Adnan speaks for them all and warned of the consequences of endangering his life.

The prison authorities in turn urged the government to resolve Adnan’s case as quickly as possible in order to forestall the growing unrest among the prisoners. In effect, the prisoners’ message was received.

The Israeli security apparatus was extremely worried when the hunger strike continued and Adnan’s condition became critical. They were not concerned for his life, but feared his death could help trigger a new Palestinian intifada, including in the 1948 territories.

The strategy of rapid, multi-faceted action proved its effectiveness. In addition to Palestinian action, a major and influential role was played by international solidarity movements. This pressure, coupled with fear of what would happen if there was an explosion of Palestinian anger, prompted even the US and European countries to make statements in the last few days of the hunger strike against the administrative detention of Adnan.

One of the major strengths of the campaign to support Adnan was that it told his personal human story, as well as of his life in politics and his struggle, in a manner that successfully conveyed both his suffering and his resolve. Adnan’s story also embodied the essence of the Palestinians’ experience and their quest for their rights and freedom, and serve to expose Israel’s essence for what it really is.

This was more effective at moving people than mere facts and figures — important as they are — could have been. The main part in the drama was played by the prisoner himself. Adnan’s family, wife, father and children also played heroic roles.

Bankruptcy of “moderation”

This battle highlighted the bankruptcy of the discourse of “moderation” which Israel and the US have foisted on the official Palestinian leadership. This moderate stance claims that if we Palestinians wish to secure international support, we must adopt a moderate posture. In practice, this means voluntarily accepting the oppressive controls imposed by the globalized terror of the state. “Moderation” here means abandoning the right to resist the occupying state.

Yet what we have just witnessed is that the world lends support when Palestinians themselves fight back and stand firm, regardless of their political affiliation. The ability to affect and move international public opinion and secure effective wide-scale solidarity was not the outcome of a public relations strategy but of a real struggle on the ground to stand up to the oppressive colonialist machine.

In all cases when an Israeli administrative detention by military order has been legally challenged — or an emergency regulations provision such as a ban on traveling or entering the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 — the Israeli high court has always upheld the policies of the military, security and intelligence services.

What happens in court is that the judge asks the Palestinian challenging the order, whether he is an Israeli citizen or not, to authorize the Israeli judges to see the “secret evidence” which the victims and their lawyers are not allowed to see or know. If the victim agrees, the judges rule on the basis of the “secret evidence” and invariably agree with the finding of the security agencies, normally issued in the name of a relevant minister or military leader.

Should the victim refuse to trust in the honesty or credibility of the occupying state, the legal challenge is in effect over, as the judges will throw it out and blame the victim for its failure.

Dangerous notions

During the Adnan campaign, a number of Palestinian political leaders, human rights activists and media outlets used the argument that if Israel had any evidence against Adnan, it should have brought him before an ordinary court. Others have suggested that the success of his campaign should inspire a new one against the use of administrative detention orders in general.

These are dangerous notions, particularly when coming from people of standing and influence. Israel is an occupying state and a colonialist entity. Even international law protects the victims of occupation and prohibits their transfer to prisons within the borders of the occupying state. Therefore, both administrative detention and the “ordinary” occupation prisons are equally illegal.

Moreover, what is “evidence” supposed to mean here? Evidence of resisting the occupation? Resisting the occupation is legitimate: it is the Israeli occupation and colonization, with its settlements and courts, that are illegitimate. Have the thousands of Palestinian and Arab prisoners in Israeli jail been legitimately sentenced? They have all been tried on “evidence” that is mainly secret and neither they nor their lawyers are allowed to see.

There is another factor. Israeli academic studies have proven unequivocally the scale of scandalous discrimination in the sentences handed down by judges in criminal cases. The sentences given to Palestinian citizens of Israel are much harsher than those given to Jewish Israeli convicts. So what can one expect when the judge representing the occupying state adjudicates on a charge of resistance by victims of this occupation?

Our battle

The real concern for the people under occupation is not whether the detention of their sons or daughters was carried out using an Israeli administrative order or a military or civilian court order. The oppression, repression and plunder are the same no matter which tool the occupation uses. Adnan’s battle is a fight against the whole colonialist project and not just one of its tools.

But when Palestinian leaders and human rights activists declare that the next step is to escalate the campaign against administrative detention orders, it indicates weakness or faulty vision.

The battle against Israeli emergency laws is a battle for the Israelis, not for the Palestinian people. The battle for the Palestinians, and all in the world who oppose occupation and colonialism, is against the occupation and the occupying state, and for national liberation, recovery of the homeland and the return of its people who are refugees and exiles.

The case of Adnan proves that victory over the colonialist project is not a mission impossible. It is possible. And it has renewed and strengthened the hope that the Palestinian people are capable of energizing their free will — the will for victory.

Ameer Makhoul is a Palestinian civil society leader and political prisoner at Gilboa Prison.

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