For Palestinian Prisoners, Hunger Strikes Are a Battle of Stomachs

DURA, West Bank — In the Israeli prison where Kayed al-Fasfos spent nine months without charge or trial, a handwritten book hidden from the guards offered some guidance on a possible way out.

The book, “Experiences of the Strike,” is a personal account of one Palestinian prisoner’s hunger strike, providing insights for would-be emulators like Mr. al-Fasfos planning to wield what they see as their most effective weapon for securing their freedom.

“We consider it a battle, but you battle with your stomach,” said Mr. al-Fasfos, a 33-year-old Palestinian accountant who went on a 131-day hunger strike last year.

A weakened Mr. al-Fasfos was released on Dec. 5 and carried atop a stretcher during his homecoming in the Israeli-occupied West Bank town of Dura, through cheering crowds acclaiming him as a victor in a recurring battle between Palestinian prisoners and Israel.

Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and military rule have had few means to combat what is a major power imbalance between the two sides. Since the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza, Israel has incarcerated thousands of Palestinians, many of them political prisoners held under what is called administrative detention, without charges or trial based on secret evidence.

To fight back, many of those detainees have turned to hunger strikes — a tactic long adopted by desperate prisoners around the world, in places like Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, or Northern Ireland.

The hunger strikes have left the Israeli authorities in a bind, largely unable to act against the prisoners or stop the images of emaciated strikers from publicly circulating. This has rallied support among Palestinians and drawn criticism of Israel from around the world, including the United Nations. The fate of one hunger striker was discussed as part of a deal to end a brief conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group in Gaza over the weekend.

“Israel always claims they are fighting against people who are militants,” Mr. al-Fasfos said, “but when it battles a prisoner and he fights with hunger, then it puts them in a difficult position.”

Khader Adnan, center, celebrating his release from an Israeli prison in 2012 after a 66-day hunger strike. Some of the tactics he used have helped guide other prisoners on hunger strikes.Credit…Bernat Armangue/Associated Press

There are currently about 500 Palestinian prisoners being held under administrative detention, according to Palestinian rights groups. Israel does not divulge information on the number of people held or what they are accused of, and says that the administrative detentions are necessary for preventing attacks against its citizens.

Palestinian prisoners have long responded with hunger strikes, either collectively with dozens or hundreds taking part, or individually, to protest prison conditions and get basic amenities, or as protests against the open-ended detentions themselves.

“There is a very long history of hunger strikes in the prisoner’s movement in Palestine,” said Sahar Francis, a director of Addameer, a Palestinian prisoners’ rights group.

Every improvement “in the conditions of the prisons was reached after a collective hunger strike, especially in the first years,” Ms. Francis said. “To guarantee mattresses, they were forced to use hunger strikes, for a pen they hunger struck, almost everything.”

Building upon decades of prisoner experiences, sometimes passed down in books such as the one Mr. al-Fasfos read, individual strikes can now extend for well over 100 days, prolonging dangerous standoffs between prisoners and the prison authorities. The strikers consume only water, often with small amounts of salt and sugar.

Hisham Abu Hawash in an emergency care unit near Tel Aviv in 2021. The strikers drink only water and often take small amounts of salt and sugar.Credit…The New York Times

In January, a 141-day hunger strike by Hisham Abu Hawash, who was accused by Israel of being involved in plans to attack Israelis, came close to inciting a conflict between Israel and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the main militant groups in the blockaded Gaza Strip. An Islamic Jihad leader warned that if Mr. Abu Hawash died, his group would consider it an Israeli assassination and retaliate. Mr. Abu Hawash, a 41-year-old construction worker, eventually ended his strike after Israel agreed to release him.

Another administrative detainee, Khalil Awawdeh, 40, is currently on hunger strike. He has gone more than 150 cumulative days without food since March 3, ending a brief pause after 111 days, when he was told he had been granted a deal, which never came through. Mr. Awawdeh, whom Israel accuses of being involved in terrorist activities but who has not been charged, is being held in a prison infirmary. On Thursday, his lawyer said he was little more than skin and bones, and Israeli news media reported that prison doctors warned he was at risk of brain damage.

As part of an agreement to end three days of airstrikes between Islamic Jihad in Gaza and Israel this past weekend, Islamic Jihad officials said the deal was conditioned on the release of Mr. Awawdeh. But Israeli officials have said they did not agree to his release.

Mr. Abu Hawash in his home in March. He eventually ended his strike after Israel agreed to release him.Credit…Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

The Israeli authorities have long struggled to address the hunger strikes.

In 2015, Israel’s Parliament passed a law allowing striking prisoners to be force fed in extreme circumstances, over the objections of the country’s medical association, which described the practice as torture. The Israeli Prison Service, however, says the law was never put in effect.

Israeli activists calling for the release of Palestinian administrative detainees outside Ayalon prison, near Tel Aviv, in 2020.Credit…Ahmad Gharabli/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

During debate in Parliament over the bill, the Israeli minister of public security at the time, Gilad Erdan, cast it as a matter of national security.

“Security prisoners are interested in turning a hunger strike into a new type of suicide terrorist attack through which they will threaten the State of Israel,” he said.

The Israel Prison Service, responding to written questions from The New York Times, said that hunger strikes were a danger to the health of prisoners and the security of the state, adding that it tried “to prevent hunger strikes in general,” including “by using various operational and intelligence tools.”

Aida Touma-Sliman, a member of Parliament from Israel’s Palestinian minority, said such efforts by Israel were aimed at undermining one of the few weapons that prisoners had at their disposal.

“They are scared that the image they present to the world of being a democratic country could be tarnished if one of the prisoners loses his life because of the hunger strike,” she said, referring to Israel.

Palestinian artists drawing a mural of Mr. Abu Hawash. Hunger strikers are considered heroes by many Palestinians.Credit…Mohammed Abed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In 2011, a 66-day strike by Khader Adnan, whom Israel accuses of being a leader of Islamic Jihad, helped usher in an era of individual hunger strikes to protest the practice of administrative detention.

Some of the tactics he used to keep the pressure on the Israeli authorities have been adopted by other prisoners, including a refusal to take food supplements or vitamins, and to get medical checkups.

Sharing such experiences was crucial to underscoring how important the strikes are for the Palestinian people and their resistance to Israeli occupation, he said.

“This is a weapon for our people, and we need to preserve the quality of this weapon,” Mr. Adnan said in an interview.

A demonstration in support of Mr. Abu Hawash in Gaza in January. His hunger strike came close to inciting a conflict between Israel and Palestinian militant groups.Credit…Mahmud Hams/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The strike last year by Mr. al-Fasfos, the accountant, was the second time he had resorted to such drastic measures to protest being held without charges. The first strike, in 2018, lasted 25 days. He had been placed under administrative detention in both cases, accused by Israel of being a security threat.

“It shines a light on a practice that is oppressive,” Mr. al-Fasfos said. “Even if I had died, I would consider it a victory because in the end I left the prison.”

Mr. al-Fasfos was also imprisoned in 2008 after being convicted, among other things, of hurling an explosive device at a passing vehicle. He was sentenced to three years.

For two weeks after Mr. al-Fasfos began his strike, guards brought him three meals a day, which he refused. On Day 15, they began bringing him salt and sugar, which hunger strikers use to keep their electrolytes up.

Mr. al-Fasfos would take a fingertip of salt, mostly to help him drink more water, whose taste he soon began to hate. By the end of his strike, he said, water smelled like gasoline to him.

Mr. al-Fasfos is an amateur bodybuilder, and his muscular build helped him during months without food. Even still, he soon began suffering. First the headaches began. Around Day 60, he could no longer walk. His bones and joints ached. It felt as if his body was feeding on his organs, he said.

“The last 10 days were really hard to be honest,” he said. “I called my family and said I am preparing to die.”

Mr. al-Fasfos, the accountant, with his daughter outside his home in April. He said he would go on hunger strike again, if necessary.Credit…Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

After his release, he was summoned for questioning by Israeli forces. He told them that if he was arrested again, he would start another hunger strike.

“I will wage the battle anew,” he said, sitting in the living room of his home in Dura, dressed in black jeans and a leather jacket.

His wife, Hala Nummora, 30, looked over at her husband.

“I can’t see him go through that again — I saw death in his eyes,” she said. “I told him never do this again.”

Myra Noveck and Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting from Jerusalem, and Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel.

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