Mohammed, the media coordinator of MCC partner Lajee Center, was walking home from spending a night out with friends. As he reached his home in Aida Refugee Camp, he found the Israeli military had entered his neighbourhood to arrest someone. The soldiers informed him that he was not allowed to return home because the area was under closure. Mohammad argued with the soldiers that they were on his land and that they had no right to prevent him from reaching his home. As words were exchanged, Mohammad was arrested and held for interrogation.
Through his interrogation, the soldiers accused Mohammad of throwing stones at the previous month’s Land Day demonstration in Bethlehem. Mohammad admitted to being at the demonstration, but he was adamant that it was not possible for him to have thrown stones, for two reasons: One, as a photographer and videographer, Mohammad’s hands were full with both his photo and video cameras. Two, barely 10 minutes after Mohammad arrived at the demonstration, he received news that his grandfather had died, and rushed home. Despite his response, Mohammad was held for a week in the Ofer Israeli military prison awaiting his court appearance, where the Israeli military would determine whether he would be charged, released, or held under administrative detention.
In contravention of international law, administrative detention is used by the Israeli military to hold Palestinians without charge, trial, or the prisoner’s knowledge of why they have been detained. Under Military Order 1226, the Israeli military can detain Palestinians for up to six months if they have “reasonable grounds to presume that the security of the area or public security require detention.” It is not uncommon that on the final day of the prisoner’s detention, the sentence is renewed. There is no limit as to how many times this sentence can be renewed, nor does the military at any time have to make public or inform the prisoner or his lawyer under what pretext he or she caused threat to public security.
Currently there are over 4,600 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli detention, including seven women, and over 200 children under the age of 16. Of these totals, over 300 Palestinians are held under administrative detention.
Israel’s use of administrative detention sparked mass hunger strikes among Palestinians in Israeli prisons in March. Inspired by Sheikh Khader Adnan and Hana Shalabi, who had both endured hunger strikes earlier in 2012 to protest their administrative detentions and each successfully negotiating their release, two prisoners began striking. Thaer Halal from Hebron was serving his eighth consecutive administrative detention and Bilal Diab was on his second term began to refuse food while Hana Shalabi was still carrying out her strike. As the days passed, the hunger strike grew. Within the first weeks, all of the prisoners who were being held under administrative detention joined the hunger strike. By April 17, over 2,000 Palestinian prisoners began hunger striking in protest of administrative detention, the use of solidarity confinement, and the prisoners’ restricted access to family visits.
Thaer Halal and Bilal Diab went without food for over 77 days, their health reaching critical conditions, before the strikers reached an agreement with the Israeli prison authority. The agreement promised that all the administrative detainees would be released upon completion of their current term, without an option for renewal or re-arrest. In addition, the 19 prisoners that were being held in isolation would be allowed to return to the general population, and family visits would be re-instated. The agreement was seen as huge success, and though some prisoners are accused of being members of organizations that use violence to resist the occupation, the hunger strike bolstered support for continued nonviolent and unified actions among Palestinians.
However, a month after the agreement, Israel has not yet fully implemented their promises. Two prisoners held under administrative detention have not yet been given any notice as to when or if they will be released. In particular, Mahmoud Al-Sarsak, who is from Gaza and a member of Palestine’s national soccer team, was traveling from Gaza to the West Bank to meet his team when he was first arrested in July 2009. Al-Sarsak, who has gone over 85 days without food, vowed to continue his strike until he is released. In addition, eight prisoners who were promised release have now had their terms renewed.
Two important lessons come out of this historic hunger strike. One, a unified nonviolent response to oppression does work, though it takes tremendous personal sacrifice and risk. Second, nonviolent protests often require international support, and unless the international community is prepared to hold Israel accountable to such agreements, we are leaving courageous activists in a state of perdition.
As for Mohammad from Aida Camp, a week after his arrest he was brought to court. The court, not wanting to charge him or further detain him, released Mohammad and he was able to return home safely to his family.