Sahar Francis, Director of the Adameer prisoner support NGO, explains how this is the largest such strike since 2012 and how it has its roots in the different legal systems for Palestinians and Israelis.
SHIR HEVER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Shir Hever in Heidelberg, Germany. Today, April 17th, is the Palestinian Prisoner Day. Nearly one in every four Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have been arrested, detained, or imprisoned, by the Israeli military and police. Imprisonment has become a symbol for Palestinian life under Israeli occupation. This year, as the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip turns 50 years old, the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are launching a mass hunger strike. The hunger strike begins today on Palestinian Prisoner Day and will include over a thousand Palestinian political prisoners. Hunger strikes are a tool of resistance used by prisoners to protest the conditions of their incarceration, the discrimination against Palestinian prisoners who are disadvantaged in access to family visits, and of course, to the very fact of imprisonment of thousands of Palestinians whose only crime was to protest the Israeli military occupation and demand freedom. Back in 2013, we interviewed Gavan Kelly, the former advocate coordinator of the Palestinian Prisoners Rights Organization at the … GAVAN KELLY: You know, when we talked about April 17th and the Palestinian Prisoners Day, we’re talking about the hunger strikes. But actually, we need to kind of look at it from a bigger picture. I mean, even though the prisoners are confined to their cells, they have the ability to inspire and mobilize the masses like very few others. If we look at the ongoing protests around Palestine, a lot of that inspiration came from the prisoners, and the sacrifices that they have made. The prisoners have a huge amount of influence out… not only confined to their cells, but outside, as has been shown, and hopefully that will continue to be the case. SHIR HEVER: According to recent Addameer publications, there are currently 6,300 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails. 500 of them are administrative detainees who do not even have charges pressed against them. 61 are female prisoners, and 300 are child prisoners. Out of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the Palestinian parliament, 12 members are currently imprisoned by Israel. Here to join us to speak about this is Sahar Francis. Sahar Francis is the general director of the Ramallah-based Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Associations since 2006. Addameer is a Palestinian NGO providing legal and advocacy support to Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli and Palestinian prisons. Sahar Francis is an attorney with a record that as a human rights lawyer and over 20 years of human rights experience. Sahar Francis was on the board of the Defence for Children International, and sits on the board of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees. Thank you very much for joining us, Sahar. SAHAR FRANCIS: Hello. SHIR HEVER: Let’s start with the hunger strike; the media is saying that Marwan Barghouti from the Fatah party is the one who called for the strikes. Is that true? And what are the demands of the strikers? SAHAR FRANCIS: Yes. Of course, as you mentioned, Marwan Barghouti is initiating this step, but of course, Marwan wouldn’t be the only prisoner that would join this hunger strike. Since 2012, actually, the last massive hunger strike, when the prisoners guaranteed some of the rights, the basic rights, but since then, actually, the Israeli prison authority is denying these rights and putting more restriction on the daily life of the prisoners. So, this is what caused the need for another massive hunger strike in order to guarantee family visits, education, ending the policy of isolation, getting more education, and more needs on the daily level. This is only actually the last resort, and the only tool that the prisoners use in order to guarantee such basic rights under the system. SHIR HEVER: Yeah, it should be clarified for our viewers that while Israeli prisoners are allowed to pursue their education within prisons, Palestinians lost that right in 2006. But I think many of our viewers also don’t realize that there is a double legal system in the Occupied Territory, one for Israelis and one for Palestinians. Can you give us an example of this kind of injustice? For example, what kind of offence a Palestinian will go to jail for an extended period of time, while an Israeli in the same area would be tried different? SAHAR FRANCIS: Of course, as you mentioned at the beginning, since the 50 years of occupation, Israel implemented two different legal systems in the Occupied Territories. The military court system actually is applying just for the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories. And based on this system, for example, throwing stones could be for several months, even four years, for the Palestinians. Where in Israel it is still a crime, but for example if a settler or a person in prison throws stones on police, or like we saw in Amona evacuation, the settlement evacuation, all those that they were throwing objects and stones they were never prosecuted. And if they would be prosecuted as settlers they wouldn’t be subjected to the military court system. They would be brought inside Israel for the civil system. SHIR HEVER: Right. And you know, this was, of course, not the first hunger strike undertaken by Palestinian prisoners. There have been quite a lot of them and some of them were quite famous and drew a lot of attention. But in 2015, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, passed a new law. Now they enabled force-feeding of hunger-striking prisoners to feed them by force with tubes. Are the prisoners concerned that this will undermine the protest and will sabotage the hunger strike? SAHAR FRANCIS: Of course, since July 2015, actually, after confirming this force-feeding bill, it is a really dangerous tool that the use of hunger strike is accompanied with this threat of the force-feeding that prison operating now can use easier than before. Of course, they never used it ’til now. We had lots of individual hunger strikes in these years, but we didn’t reach the point where they used force-feeding. But, of course we are afraid that they can use it any time after having get legalized via the Knesset in 2015. Unfortunately, the High Court, as well, in Israel rejected the petitions against this force-feeding bill, so we don’t know yet what the decision of the court would be in such cases. The thing that gives a bit of hope that the doctors’ union in Israel is against the force-feeding. They considered it as a torture, so they refused to implement force-feeding ’til now, and hopefully that no doctor in Israel will agree to implement force-feeding at the end of the day. SHIR HEVER: Yeah, of course, the United Nations considers force-feeding of hunger strikers to be a form of torture. Many doctors in Israel are aware of that. But one thing I wanted to ask you about, before Palestinian prisoners, the last couple of weeks and months, Israel forces have been rounding up a very large number of Palestinian, actually 6,000 prisoners is above the average of the last couple of years. And now the Israeli media has been boasting that 500 Palestinians more were arrested just in the last couple of weeks, under various suspicions of terrorism, and so on. But this is interesting, because they are aware of the hunger strike and they’re actually making the prisoners more powerful by arresting so many people. Does that make any sense? How do you understand this policy, to make so many arrests just before the hunger strike? SAHAR FRANCIS: Actually, these mass arrest campaigns were launched since almost more than two years under the… the argument that all these people are involved in incitement. And this has become the trend in the last couple of years, arresting people for their social media activities, whether publishing things on Facebook, or Twitter, or other social media. And they are arresting lots of activists from the ground, peaceful activists that they are joining the demonstrations against settlements, and the wall, and so on. So, of course, whenever they know that the prisoners are going to do such an act as hunger strike, they can increase. And it’s not just related to the hunger strike. I would say that it’s related to the deal that we are expecting to take place between Hamas and the Israelis, like the one that took place in 2011, actually, and changed it. So, in order to put more pressure on the Hamas, or the Palestinian authorities, any negotiations they used to arrest hundreds of prisoners in order to increase the number that they can easily release, of course, to undermine the release of leaders like Marwan Barghouti or other leaders or those, for example, that they were re-arrested after the release of 2011, claiming that they were going back to be involved in activities. And all of them, more than 62, actually, they were re-arrested and they were getting back their old sentences that in some cases were life sentences. SHIR HEVER: Yeah. They’re actually making these mass arrests in order to create bargaining chips for future negotiation. I want to ask you one last question. Can you give us an example of the kind of protests that are happening around the world during the Palestinian Prisoner Day? What kind of shows of solidarity can people participate in in countries outside of Israel-Palestine if they want to support the prisoners? SAHAR FRANCIS: Of course, usually on the 17th of April, and actually in all the month of April, it’s the prisoners Palestinian Prisoners Day. So, activists, pro-Palestinian activists and solidarity movement, they show solidarity via demonstrations, or vigils, or short videos that they distribute, or other activities. This year we launched a call to show solidarity, as well, by sending letters for the UN, or the MPs all over, requesting more sanctions in order to make Israel, and force Israel, to respect international law and to release, especially on the level of admin side of detention and human rights defenders’ cases. So, I hope that until the end of the month more and more solidarity support activities will take place all over. SHIR HEVER: Thank you very much, Sahar, for speaking with us. SAHAR FRANCIS: Thank you. SHIR HEVER: And thank you for watching The Real News Network. ————————- END