Saif Dahlah / AFP - Getty Images
Palestinians protesters demonstrate with their hands chained during a procession in the West Bank city of Jenin on Friday in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails.
Few people in the West would recognize the names Bilal Diab or Thaer Halahleh.
After all, they didn’t seek refuge in an American embassy beyond the reach of a repressive government or publicly decry the behavior of America’s adversaries.
However, their names have become a rallying cry for human rights activists, lawyers and millions of Palestinians fighting against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Halahleh and Diab are in custody in Israeli jails and have been on a hunger strike for 74 days as of Friday, protesting what they say is their illegal detention. And now an estimated 1,600 other Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails have joined them in refusing nutrition, this time in protest against the way they have been treated while in custody.
In recent days, Halahleh and Diab’s conditions have worsened and their deterioration has once again triggered international debate over Israel’s practice of “administrative detention” and the tools available for Palestinians to protest the policy.
Israel’s practice of administrative detention allows the military to hold prisoners indefinitely based on secret information without charging them or allowing them to stand trial.
Israeli officials defend its use as a way to hold Palestinians who pose an immediate threat to the country's security. Israel says they keep the evidence secret from lawyers and the accused because it would expose their intelligence-gathering networks if released.
In Halahleh’s case, he has not been charged with a crime and he isn’t even aware what evidence is being used to hold him. In addition, an order by an Israeli military judge for him to remain in administrative detention has been extended eight times.
Over the past year, the number of administrative detentions has nearly doubled, according to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, and more than 300 Palestinians remain in Israeli jails under the classification of administrative detention.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev has said administrative detention is "unfortunately a necessary tool" in fighting terrorism.
He has also been adamant that the hunger strikers are dangerous men. “This strike is not about human rights. This strike is being led by hardcore Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The leaders of this strike are people who've been directly responsible for brutal acts of terror against innocent civilians, people who blown up people in pizza parlors in coffee shops on school buses,” Regev said earlier this week, according to the Associated Press.
Only tool left: starvation
What’s most fueling the hunger strikes, however, is the sense of hopelessness gripping Palestinian prisoners.
Many Palestinians believe they have no impartial legal recourse to ensure their rights since their cases can only be tried in Israeli courts. Israel’s Supreme Court rejected the petitions of Halahleh and Diab against their detention on Monday.
Adding to the tension is the fact that many Palestinians have had a family member or friend detained or arrested and held in an Israeli jail at some point since Israel began its occupation of Palestinian Territories in 1967.
And with no major international media organization spotlighting their case, the prisoners have resorted to the only form of protest they can to draw attention to their plight: their bodies.
This form of protest has become the latest tool adopted particularly by prisoners in the broader Palestinian non-violent struggle against Israel’s occupation.
In recent years, non-violent protests, including marches, acts of civil disobedience, sanctions, boycotts and now, hunger strikes, have become the increasing norm among Palestinian activists demanding their inalienable rights of freedom and justice. However, there are elements within Palestinian society, including Hamas and other militant groups that are considered terrorist organizations by Israel and the U.S., that still advocate armed resistance to the occupation.
But the increase of the Palestinian non-violence movement has been largely ignored by the West. Despite the fact that for years, Palestinians were promised that their cause would be advanced globally if they would only rejected “terror” and embraced non-violent forms of protest.
Palestinian activists say they are doing that, it’s the global community, they claim which has not lived up to its promises and diplomatically rallied behind their cause.
Like their Palestinian prisoners behind Israeli walls, the broader Palestinian public feels a sense of isolation and hopelessness being heard by the global community.
International attempts to reign in Israel’s expansion of Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank have failed and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has received less and less diplomatic attention in the face of Arab revolutions and increased tension between Israel and Iran.
Many observers feel the Palestinian struggle for freedom, and Israel's quest for security, has been held captive to a failed peace process.
Ignoring the hunger strikes and the Israel-Palestinian conflict amidst the sweeping changes in the region is perilous.
For a society that revers and holds in high esteem its prisoners, the death of one or many of these prisoners could have broader reverberations and trigger unrest on the occupied Palestinian street. Unfortunately, that would get the attention of many probably for the wrong reasons.