DURA, West Bank – In the Israeli prison where Kayed al-Fasfos spent nine months without charge or trial, a handwritten book hidden from guards offered some clue as to a possible way out.
The book, Experiences of the Strike, is a personal account of a Palestinian prisoner’s hunger strike and provides insights for would-be emulators like Mr. al-Fasfos who intend to wield what they see as their most effective weapon to fight for their freedom. to ensure.
“We consider it a struggle, but you fight with your stomach,” said Mr al-Fasfos, a 33-year-old Palestinian accountant who went on hunger strike for 131 days last year.
A weakened Mr. al-Fasfos was released on December 5 and carried on a stretcher as he returned home to the Israeli-occupied West Bank city of Dura, by cheering crowds who hailed him as a victor in a recurring battle between Palestinian prisoners and Israel.
Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and military rule have had few resources to combat the wide power imbalance between the two sides. Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when Israel occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza, Israel has imprisoned thousands of Palestinians, many of them political prisoners, held under so-called administrative detention, without charge or trial on the basis of secret proof.
To fight back, many of those inmates have gone on hunger strikes — a tactic long used by desperate prisoners around the world, in places like Guantánamo Bay, Cuba or Northern Ireland.
The hunger strikes have left Israeli authorities in a precarious position, largely unable to act on the detainees or prevent images of emaciated strikers from circulating publicly. This has led to support among Palestinians and criticism of Israel from around the world, including the United Nations. The fate of a hunger striker was discussed as part of a deal to end a short-lived conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group in Gaza over the weekend.
“Israel always claims that they fight against people who are militants,” Mr al-Fasfos said, “but when it fights a prisoner and he fights with hunger, it puts them in a difficult position.”
According to Palestinian human rights groups, about 500 Palestinian prisoners are currently held in administrative detention. Israel does not disclose the number of people detained or accused of, saying the administrative detentions are necessary to prevent attacks on its citizens.
Palestinian prisoners have long responded with hunger strikes, either collectively with tens or hundreds of participants, or individually, to protest the conditions in the prisons and receive basic services, or in protest against the indefinite detentions themselves.
“There is a very long history of hunger strikes in the prisoner movement in Palestine,” said Sahar Francis, director of Addameer, a Palestinian prisoner’s rights group.
Any improvement “in prison conditions was achieved after a collective hunger strike, especially in the early years,” Ms Francis said. “To guarantee mattresses, they were forced to go on hunger strikes, for a pen they beat almost everything.”
Building on decades of inmates’ experience, sometimes narrated in books such as Al-Fasfos’s, individual strikes can now last more than 100 days, prolonging dangerous clashes between inmates and prison authorities. The strikers consume only water, often with small amounts of salt and sugar.
In January, a 141-day hunger strike by Hisham Abu Hawash, accused by Israel of involvement in plans to attack Israelis, came close to instigating a conflict between Israel and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the main militant groups in the blocked Gaza Strip. An Islamic Jihad leader warned that if Mr. Abu Hawash died, his group would consider it an Israeli assassination and retaliate. Mr Abu Hawash, a 41-year-old construction worker, eventually ended his strike after Israel agreed to release him.
Another administrative prisoner, Khalil Awawdeh, 40, is currently on a hunger strike. He’s been without food for more than 150 cumulative days since March 3, ending a brief hiatus after 111 days when he was told he’d gotten a deal, which never came through. Mr Awawdeh, who has been accused by Israel of involvement in terrorist activities but has not been charged, is being held in a prison hospital. On Thursday, his lawyer said he was little more than skin and bones, and Israeli news media reported prison doctors warned he was at risk of brain damage.
As part of an agreement to end the three-day-long airstrikes between Islamic Jihad in Gaza and Israel over the weekend, Islamic Jihad officials said the deal was conditional on Mr Awawdeh’s release. But Israeli officials have said they disagreed with his release.
Israeli authorities have long struggled to tackle the hunger strikes.
In 2015, Israel’s parliament passed a law allowing for the force-feeding of striking prisoners under extreme conditions over objections from the country’s medical association, which described the practice as torture. However, the Israeli Prison Service says the law has never come into effect.
During parliament’s debate on the bill, then-Israeli public security minister Gilad Erdan raised it as a matter of national security.
“Security prisoners are interested in turning a hunger strike into a new type of suicide terrorist attack that will threaten the State of Israel,” he said.
The Israel Prison Service, in response to written questions from DailyExpertNews, said hunger strikes pose a threat to inmates’ health and the security of the state, adding that it was trying to “prevent hunger strikes in general.” including “by using various operational and intelligence tools.”
Aida Touma-Sliman, a member of parliament from Israel’s Palestinian minority, said such efforts by Israel were aimed at undermining one of the few weapons prisoners had at their disposal.
“They fear that the image they present to the world of a democratic country could be tarnished if one of the prisoners loses his life on the hunger strike,” she said, referring to Israel.
In 2011, a 66-day strike by Khader Adnan, accused by Israel of being a leader of Islamic Jihad, helped usher in an era of individual hunger strikes to protest the practice of administrative detention.
Some of the tactics he used to pressure Israeli authorities have been adopted by other inmates, including refusing to take dietary supplements or vitamins and to receive medical checkups.
Sharing such experiences was crucial in underlining how important the strikes are for the Palestinian people and their resistance to the Israeli occupation, he said.
“This is a weapon for our people and we need to maintain the quality of this weapon,” Mr Adnan said in an interview.
The strike last year by accountant Mr al-Fasfos was the second time he has resorted to such drastic measures to protest being held without charge. The first strike, in 2018, lasted 25 days. He had been placed under administrative detention in both cases, accused by Israel of being a security threat.
“It sheds light on a practice that is oppressive,” said Mr al-Fasfos. “Even if I had died, I would consider it a victory, because eventually I got out of prison.”
Mr al-Fasfos was also jailed in 2008 after being convicted, among other things, for throwing an explosive device at a passing vehicle. He was sentenced to three years.
Two weeks after Mr. al-Fasfos started his strike, guards brought him three meals a day, which he refused. On Day 15, they started bringing him salt and sugar, which hunger strikers use to maintain their electrolytes.
Mr. al-Fasfos would take a pinch of salt, especially to help him drink more water, whose taste he soon began to hate. Towards the end of his strike, he said, the water smelled like gasoline to him.
Mr. al-Fasfos is an amateur bodybuilder and his muscular build helped him go without food for months. Even still, he soon began to suffer. First the headaches started. By day 60 he could no longer walk. His bones and joints ached. It felt like his body was feeding on his organs, he said.
“The past 10 days have been really hard to be honest,” he said. “I called my family and said I was preparing to die.”
After his release, he was called for questioning by Israeli troops. He told them that if he was arrested again, he would go on hunger strike again.
“I will fight again,” he said, sitting in the living room of his home in Dura, dressed in black jeans and a leather jacket.
His wife, Hala Nummora, 30, looked at her husband.
“I can’t see him go through that again — I saw death in his eyes,” she said. “I told him never to do this again.”
Myra Noveck and Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting from Jerusalem, and Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel.