Palestinian journalist Mohammed Al-Qeq has so far spent 66 days on a hunger strike in Israeli jails. Just before he slipped into his third coma, he sent a public message through his lawyers, the gist of which was: Freedom or death.
Al-Qeq is 33 years of age, married and a father of two children. Photos circulating of him online and on Palestinian streets show the face of a bespectacled, handsome man. The reality about his appearance, though, is quite different. “He’s in a very bad situation. He fell into his third coma in recent days, and his weight has dropped to 30 kilos,” Ashraf Abu Sneina, one of Al-Qeq’s attorneys, told Al-Jazeera.
Ominous predictions of Al-Qed’s imminent death have been circulating for days, with no end in sight to his prolonged ordeal. It took the Red Cross and other international groups many days to pay much heed to the case of this news reporter who has refused food and medical treatment since Nov. 24, 2015.
He was arrested at his home in Ramallah on Nov. 21. In its statement, issued more than 60 days after Al-Qeq began his hunger strike, ICRC described the situation as “critical” and that Al-Qeq’s “life being at risk.” On Jan. 27, the European Union, too, said it was “especially concerned” about Al-Qeq’s deteriorating health. Al-Qeq was arrested under a notorious Israeli law called the “administrative detention” law. Israel has effectively held Palestinians and Arab prisoners without offering reasons for their arrests practically since the state was founded in 1948. In fact, it is argued that this law, which is principally founded on “secret evidence,” dates back to the British Mandate government’s Emergency Regulations.
After Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in 1967, it labored to find whatever legal justifications to holding prisoners without trials. These efforts were eventually articulated in the Israeli Law on Authorities in State of Emergency in 1979.
The law, then, was some sort of a compromise between the internal intelligence (Shin Bet), the State and the court system with the ultimate aim of providing some kind of legal cover to what is considered in international law, and most country laws, as unlawful. The Shin Bet was, thus, allowed to use whatever coercive measures to exact confessions from Palestinian prisoners over the course of six months, renewable by a court order, without trial or charges.
Khader Adnan, 37, from Jenin, was held under administrative detention law for years. Israeli intelligence had no evidence to indict him of any particular wrongdoing, despite accusations that he was a valued member of the Islamic Jihad organization. He was set free on July 12, 2015, but after undergoing several hunger strikes, with two particularly long ones: Early 2012, which lasted for 66 days, and another, in May 2015, which lasted for 56 days. Each time, Adnan reached the point where death, as is the case for Al-Qeq, was also becoming a real possibility. When we asked him what compelled him to follow this dangerous path twice, his answer was immediate: “Repeated arrests, the savagery of the way I was arrested, the brutality of the interrogation and, finally, the prolonged administrative detention” without trial.
Administrative detentions are like legal black holes. They offer no escape routes, no rights for the prisoner whatsoever, but win the interrogators time to break the spirit of the prisoner, forcing him or her to surrender or even admit, under torture, to things that he or she never committed in the first place. “It is our last and only choice,” says Mohammed Allan, 33, from Nablus, who underwent a long hunger strike that caused him brain damage, and nearly cost him his life.
Almost instantly, a hunger striker is thrown into solitary confinement, denied access to a mattress and blanket and other basic necessities. Only after six weeks or so, do Israeli prison authorities agree to talk to lawyers representing hunger strikers to discuss various proposals. But, within this period of time, the prisoner is left entirely unaided, isolated from the other prisoners and subjected to an uninterrupted campaign of intimidation and threats. “Mental torture is far worse than hunger,” says Allan.
Allan almost died in prison and, despite a court order that permitted the prison authority to force-feed him (a practice seen internationally as a form of torture), doctors at Soroka Hospital refused to act upon the instructions. In mid-August 2015, Allan was placed on life support when he lost consciousness. His severe malnutrition resulted in brain damage.
A third hunger striker, freed now, Ayman Sharawneh, originally from Dura, Hebron, but currently deported to Gaza, describes hunger strikes as the “last bullet” in the fight for freedom that could possibly end in death. Sharawneh, like Adnan and others we talked to, was bitter about the lack of adequate support he received while dying in jail. “All organizations, Palestinian and international, usually fall short,” he says. “They spring into action after the prisoner has been through many days of torture.” He says that 2 years and 8 months after he was deported to Gaza to spend 10 years in the besieged Strip before being allowed back to Dura, he is experiencing severe pain throughout his body, particularly in his kidneys. While undergoing the extended hunger strike, “I started to lose my hair, suffered from constant nausea, sharp pain in my guts, threw up yellow liquid, then dark liquid, then I could barely see anything. I had an excruciating headache and then I began to suffer from fissures all over my skin and body.” He agrees with Adnan that “individual hunger strikes” should not be understood as a self-centered act. “Al-Qeq is not striking for himself,” says Adnan. “He is striking on behalf of the cause of all political prisoners,” whose numbers is estimated by prisons’ right group Addameer at nearly 7,000.
According to Adnan, the issue of hunger strikes should not be seen as a battle within Israeli jails, but as part and parcel of the Palestinian people’s fight against military occupation. While the three prisoners affirmed their solidarity with Al-Qeq, they called for much greater support for the hunger striking journalist and thousands like him, many of whom are held indefinitely on administrative detentions.