By Mohamed Mohamed
As many as 1,500 Palestinian political prisoners incarcerated by Israel are currently on a hunger strike, which entered its 32nd day on Thursday. Among their demands are better living conditions and medical care, more family visits, and an end to Israel’s habits of detaining people without due process and torturing detainees, including women and children.
Outside prison walls, thousands of Palestinians – who live in a de facto open-air prison under Israeli occupation – are protesting in solidarity with the hunger strikers. But as Ramzy Baroud points out, Israeli jails are essentially prisons within a prison, so the plight of Palestinian prisoners resonates strongly with that of all Palestinians and goes beyond jailhouse conditions.
In a sign that the health of the hunger strikers is deteriorating, Israel reportedly just transferred them to prisons that are close to hospitals. Last week, Israeli forces shot dead a Palestinian protester, and on Thursday an Israeli settler passing through one of the protests shot and killed another. Given these clear dangers, why are Palestinians participating in such resistance?
“Rights are not bestowed by an oppressor.” This statement in a New York Times op-ed by Marwan Barghouti, an imprisoned Palestinian political figure leading the hunger strike, provides a simple yet undeniable answer to the question. It is perhaps the core reason why Palestinians have engaged in various forms of resistance against Israel ever since the Nakba in 1948.
Israel was founded and continues to be driven by the racist settler-colonialist ideology of Zionism, which encouraged the expulsion of the native Palestinian population and the conquest of their land. In 1948, more than 750,000 Palestinians were dispossessed from their homeland, followed by at least another 250,000 in 1967. Almost seventy years later, these refugees and their descendants now add up to around seven million. Israel prevents them from returning, it subjugates those that were able to stay while continuing to colonize their remaining land, and is guilty of a wide variety of other human rights violations against Palestinians.
These abuses do not even include the extensive crimes Israel committed against the Lebanese people, whether with the 1982 invasion, the subsequent 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon, and many vicious assaults, including the devastating 2006 war. Nor do they include the occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights (since 1967) and the discrimination and violations against its indigenous Syrian population.
To put it bluntly, Israel is a country built on land theft, ethnic cleansing, and oppression. It is unreasonable – if not completely absurd – to assume that such an aggressive state would voluntarily give Palestinians their human rights. Israel’s military dominance and willingness to use force makes this scenario even less likely. This is why Palestinian prisoners have taken the drastic measure of hunger striking, and why so many Palestinians are protesting in rage, both groups risking their lives in the process. If they do nothing, they will surely gain nothing.
The bottom line is that Israel must be pressured in some way or another for it to even consider improving its treatment of Palestinians. This is the key logic behind the grassroots boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, which has succeeded in imposing economic, academic, and cultural costs on Israel for its continued occupation and oppression of Palestinians. As this pressure increases, so will the likelihood that Israel will change its repressive ways.
Considering their circumstances, Palestinians have been doing the best they can to fight for their rights, but they face significant challenges. The current Israeli government is the most right-wing in its history, and even so-called liberal Israeli politicians such as Yair Lapid advocate for “maximum Jews on maximum land…with minimum Palestinians.”
Unfortunately, Israeli society is also overwhelmingly discriminatory: a 2016 Pew survey indicates that almost half of Israeli Jews believe that Palestinian citizens of Israel should be expelled from the country, and 79 percent believe that Jews deserve preferential treatment in Israel. Even in Tel Aviv, which is the stronghold of Israeli secular liberalism, most citizens “care little about the Palestinians.” As long as they feel prosperous and secure, Israelis do not care much for peace with Palestinians.
Yet perhaps the most telling example why Palestinians cannot wait for Israel to grant them their rights lies in Itamar, a Jewish settlement near Nablus and “home” to the Israeli settler who murdered the Palestinian protester on Thursday.
In 2013, the Itamar colonists were astonished to find out that Avri Ran, a hard-line hero of the settler movement, had decided to steal a plot of “their” land. The settlement had been cannibalized by another settler, and as the Haaretz article points out, “when it’s no longer possible to expand at the expense of the Arabs, the Jews are next in line.”
An unjust system eventually turns on itself too. This is why Palestinians – whether in prisons, in Palestine, or in the diaspora – must continue in their resistance against Israel.
Mohamed Mohamed is the Executive Director of The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center.
The views in this brief are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.