Santa Barbara, CA - The parallel hunger strikes in Israeli prisons, over which a deal has reportedly been agreed, have captured the imagination of Palestinians around the world, giving the word "solidarity" a new urgency. The crisis produced by these strikes makes this year's observance of Nabka Day a moral imperative for all those concerned with attaining justice and peace for the long oppressed Palestinian people - whether living under occupation or in exile. The Palestinian mood on this May 14, is one inflamed by abuse and frustration, but also inspired by and justly proud of exemplary expressions of courage, discipline and nonviolent resistance on the part of those imprisoned Palestinians who have been mounting the greatest internal challenge that Israel has faced since the Second Intifada. Even as the strikes seem on the verge of ending, due to a series of Israeli concessions in response to the grievances of the prisoners, the impact and significance of the strike remains a shining light in an otherwise dark sky.
It all started when a lone prisoner, Khader Adnan initiated a hunger strike to protest his abusive arrest and administrative detention on December 17, which happened to be the exact anniversary of Tunisian vendor Mohammed Bouazizi's self-immolation - his death leading directly to the birth of the Arab Spring. Adnan ended his strike after 66 days, when Israel relented somewhat on his terms of detention. More than 30 years previously, Bobby Sands died after 66 days of his own hunger strike, maintained so as to dramatise IRA prison grievances in Northern Ireland. It is not surprising that the survivors of the 1981 Irish protest should now be sending messages of empathy and solidarity to their Palestinian brothers locked up in Israeli jails.
What Adnan did prompted other Palestinians to take a similar stand. Hana Shalabi, like Adnan a few weeks later, experienced a horrible arrest experience and was returned to prison without charges or trial. She too seemed ready to die rather than endure further humiliation, and was also eventually released, but punitively, being "deported" to Gaza, away from her West Bank village and family for a period of three years. Others hunger strikes followed, with two types emerging, each influenced by the other.
Parallel strikes and global solidarity
The longer of the two strikes involved six Palestinians who remain in critical condition - their lives at risk for at least the past week. Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahleh have now refused food for an incredible 76 days, a sacrificial form of nonviolent resistance that can only be properly appreciated as a scream of anguish and despair on behalf of those who have been suffering so unjustly and mutely for far too long. It is a sign of Western indifference that even these screams seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
The second, closely related, hunger strike that has lasted almost a month is an equally an extraordinary display of disciplined nonviolence, initiated on April 17, Palestinian Prisoners Day. By today, Monday, May 14, there are reported to be as many as 2,000 prisoners who have been refusing all food, until a set of grievances associated with deplorable prison conditions are satisfactorily resolved. The two strikes are linked because the longer hunger strike inspired the mass strike - and the remaining several thousand non-striking Palestinian prisoners in Israel jails have already pledged to join in the refusal of food if there are any deaths among the strikers. This heightened prisoner consciousness has already been effective in mobilising the wider community of Palestinians living under occupation, and beyond.
This heroic activism gives an edge to the 2012 Nakba observance, and contrasts with the apparent futility of traditional diplomacy. The Quartet tasked with providing a roadmap to achieve a peaceful resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict seems completely at a loss, and has long been irrelevant to the quest for a sustainable peace, let alone the realisation of Palestinian rights. The much publicised efforts of a year ago to put forward a statehood bid at the United Nations seems stalled indefinitely, due to the crafty backroom manoeuvres of the United States.
Even the widely supported and reasonable recommendations of the Goldstone Report to seek accountability for Israeli leaders who seemed guilty of war crimes associated with the three weeks of attacks on Gaza at the end of 2008 have been permanently consigned to limbo.
And the situation is actually even worse for the Palestinians than this summary depiction suggests. While nothing happens on the diplomatic level, other clocks are ticking at a fast pace. Several developments adverse to Palestinian interests and aspirations are taking place at an accelerating pace: 40,000 additional settlers are living in the West Bank since the temporary freeze on settlement expansion ended in September 2010, bringing the overall West Bank settler population to about 365,000, and well over 500,000 if East Jerusalem settlers are added on.
Every day is a 'Nakba'
Is it any wonder then that Palestinians increasingly view the Nabka not as an event frozen in time back in 1947 when as many as 700,000 fled from their homeland, but as descriptive of an historical process that has been going on ever since Palestinians began being displaced by Israeli immigration and victimised by the ambitions and tactics of the Zionist project? It is this understanding of the Nakba as a living reality with deep historical roots that gives the hunger strikes such value. Nothing may be happening when it comes to the peace process, but at least, with heightened irony, it is possible to say that a lot is happening in Israeli jails.
And the resolve of these hunger strikers has been so great as to convey to anyone that is attentive that the Palestinians will not be disappeared from history. And merely by saying this there is a renewed sense of engagement on the part of Palestinians the world over - and of their growing number of friends and comrades - that this Palestinian courage and sacrifice and fearlessness will bring eventual success. In contrast, it is the governmental search for deals and bargains built to reflect power relations, not claims of rights, that seems so irrelevant that its disappearance would hardly be noticed.
By and large, the Western media, especially in the United States, has taken virtually no notice of these hunger strikes, as if there was no news angle until the possibility of martyrdom for the strikers began at last to stir fears in Israeli hearts of a potential Palestinian backlash and a public relations setback on the international level. Then, and only then, has there been speculation that, maybe, Israel could and should make some concessions - promising to improve prison conditions and limit reliance on administrative detention to situations where a credible security threat existed.
Self-reliance and nonviolence
Beyond this frantic quest by Israel to find a last minute pragmatic escape from this volatile situation posed both by hunger strikers on the brink of death and a massive show of solidarity by the larger prison population, is this sense that the real message of the Nakba is to underscore the imperative of self-reliance and nonviolence and ongoing struggle. The Palestinian future will be shaped by the people of Palestine. And it is up to us in the outside world, whether Palestinian or not, to join in their struggle to achieve justice from below, sufficiently shaking the foundations of oppressive structures of occupation and the exclusions of exile to create tremors of doubt in the Israeli colonial mindset. And as doubts grow, new possibilities suddenly emerge.
For this reason, the Nakba should become important for all persons of good will, whether Palestinian or not, whether in Israel or outside, as an occasion for displays of solidarity. This might mean a global sympathy hunger strike as is being urged for May 17, or an added commitment to the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) Campaign, or signing up to join the next voyage of the Freedom Flotilla. Certainly the Nakba is a time of remembrance for the historic tragedy of expulsion, but it is equally a time of reflection on what might be done to stop the bleeding and to acknowledge and celebrate those who are brave enough to say "this far, and no further".
Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades, most recently editing the volume International Law and the Third World: Reshaping Justice (Routledge, 2008(
He is currently serving his third year of a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.
Follow him on Twitter: @rfalk13