Samer Issawi Hunger Strike: Protest Creates Eruption Of Violence In Israel

Thursday's protests outside Ofer Prison, an Israeli detention facility near Ramallah, turned violent, leading to more than 60 injuries. The demonstrators, composed mostly of youths, reportedly threw stones and petrol bombs at Israeli soldiers, prompting the IDF to respond with tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition.

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have a history of using rock-throwing as a pretext to escalate otherwise peaceful protests into violent encounters. At the beginning of February, Palestinians participating in a peaceful sit in at an encampment meant to protest Israeli building restrictions on Palestinians and Israeli settlement expansion, began throwing stones at the IDF soldiers trying to dismantle their encampment. The stone-throwing prompted Israeli soldiers to fire tear gas and stun grenades.

However, the chief purpose of Thursday's protests was to show solidarity with the hunger strikes of four Palestinian prisoner, who Israel is indefinitely detaining via its abuse of the administrative detention policy, along with thousands of other Palestinians. Hunger strikes are the only means by which a prisoner may protest their detainment and conditions, sending a powerful message to the world.

After more than 200 days of starving himself, Samer Issawi is near death. According to reports, he currently weighs less than 110 pounds. Although Issawi was initially one of the hundreds of prisoners exchanged for the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shilat, he was rearrested for violating his parole. Issawi is the focal point of attention surrounding the administrative detention controversy, as his hunger strike puts him in the most immediate danger. However, there are three other long-term hunger strikers: Tariq Qaadan, Jafar Ezzedine, and Ayman Sharawna.

Israel treats the practice of hunger strikes as an act of insubordination. Issawi’s jailers have denied him his family visitation privileges on the baffling grounds that his hunger strike somehow disqualifies him from seeing his family, little more than a naked attempt to punish Issawi for drawing attention to Israel’s unjust use of administrative detention.

The policy of administrative detention is only permissible under international law in the most extreme circumstances, when public safety is immediately at risk and there are no other courses of action. But Israel has routinely used it to indefinitely detain thousands of prisoners ranging from spans of months to years.

In spring 2012, 1,500 Palestinian prisoners began the hunger strikes to protest their indefinite detention, in violation of international standards for the right of due process. This is just a fraction of the 4,517 Palestinians currently held in Israeli jails, many of whom are most likely no more than political prisoners. The strikes spurred UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, alongside the European Union, the Red Cross, and Human Rights Watch to call Israel out on the mistreatment of its prisoners.

However, the U.S. has predictably refused to comment on the situation. On Tuesday, February 19, State Department Spokeswoman Victora Nuland unhelpfully urged “all sides to refrain from actions that could exacerbate the situation” but did not so much as address the issue of administrative detention.

President Barack Obama is planning a trip to the Middle East in March. He will visit Israel for the first time in his capacity as U.S. president, as well as the West Bank and Jordan. Unsurprisingly, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has confirmed that the trip is intended to bolster U.S. relations with Israel, with no mention of simultaneously bolstering relations with Palestine.

As such, it is highly unlikely that President Obama, or any U.S. government official, will see fit to directly comment on the issue of administrative detention and its resulting hunger strikes. 

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Bryant Harris

Bryant Harris is a reporter with Inter Press Service News. He has worked in Muscat, Oman and was a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco. He graduated from UW-Madison in 2011 with a BA in Middle East Studies.

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