Last week, Palestinian prisoner Hisham Abu Hawash ended a 141-day hunger strike in protest against Israel’s decision to continue his administrative detention.
The hunger strike ended after mediation efforts by Egypt and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to prevent the Gaza Strip from sliding into military confrontations with Israel.
Armed Palestinian factions in Gaza had threatened a military response if Abu Hawash died after his health seriously deteriorated in the last days of his hunger strike.
Abu Hawash decided to end the hunger strike according to a deal between the PA and Israel to release him in February last year, after being held in administrative detention without charge since October 2020.
His detention was renewed three times after his arrest, once during his hunger strike for six months that was later reduced to four months.
Israel uses administrative detention against Palestinians arrested in the West Bank or to renew the detention of Palestinian prisoners who have completed their sentences in Israeli prisons.
Palestinian prisoners have decided to escalate their protests against this policy that Israel has adopted in recent years. They resort to individual hunger strikes, despite the risk, to raise awareness of their suffering and to force Israel to release them amid media campaigns and international criticism.
Palestinian prisoners also participate in group hunger strikes that gradually spread among the prison population. Their aim is usually to improve conditions inside the prisons or to prosecute demands that impact all prisoners in different jails.
Individual hunger strikes have grown in number, demonstrating the resilience of Palestinian prisoners and the ongoing nature of their demands. Most are to protest against administrative detention or solitary confinement, which Israel is using more and more frequently against Palestinian detainees.
Palestinian prisoners began using individual or group hunger strikes as leverage for the first time in 1969 in a strike that lasted for 11 days. The demand at the time was more exercise time in the courtyard or outside their cells.
The most effective strike by Palestinian prisoners, laying the groundwork for more frequent strikes, was in 2000 in protest at solitary confinement and the humiliating restrictions and conditions introduced for visits by the families of Palestinian detainees.
This strike continued for almost a month and ended with the Israeli authorities easing some policies.
The most historic individual strike was by Samer Al-Issawi from Jerusalem, who went on a hunger strike in 2013 that lasted for more than 265 days. Al-Issawi was protesting against a 30-year sentence, and although he was released in 2011 as part of a prisoner-exchange deal with Hamas, which released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, he was rearrested a few months later.
Other hunger strikes were carried out by Khedr Adnan from Jenin, who was arrested several times and began several hunger strikes in 2004 and 2005 against solitary confinement and in 2012 and 2014 against administrative detention.
In 2018, he went on hunger strike to protest against his arrest and prosecution by the Israeli Occupation’s judicial system, according to the Palestinian news agency Wafa.
Despite the serious health risks of hunger strikes, the detainees feel that they are a last-ditch attempt to end their suffering and obtain their rights under unjust and prejudiced Israeli laws.
Palestinian prisoners are also hopeful that ongoing negotiations will result in a prisoner-exchange deal soon between Hamas and Israel.
Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, admits to capturing four Israelis including two soldiers taken during military operations on the border during the 2014 war.
Although Hamas has not released information about the fate of these prisoners, it sends frequent signals to increase the pressure on the Israeli government to agree to a prisoner-exchange.
Israel, however, does not want to pay the price Hamas is demanding for this deal. Instead, it suggests that the release of the two Israeli soldiers should be part of understandings that would result in easing the siege on Gaza.
Egypt is exerting great efforts in mediating between Hamas and Israel to bring viewpoints closer to reaching a prisoner-exchange deal similar to the 2011 deal that released the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for 1,050 Palestinian prisoners, including those serving long sentences.
The Palestinian Detainees and Ex-Detainees Authority said at the end of December that there are around 4,600 Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons. There are 34 female detainees, including one minor, and 160 children and minors in Israeli jails along with around 500 administrative detainees.
More than 600 Palestinian prisoners suffer from chronic ailments such as cancer amid the intentional medical negligence of their conditions, according to official figures.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.