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Hunger strike against Israel's wall
"The world must not tolerate apartheid"

July 23, 2004 | Page 5

THE INTERNATIONAL Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled last week that Israel's construction of its apartheid wall in the West Bank was a violation of international law. And in a matter of hours, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon--along with his bipartisan backers in Washington--had not only rejected the ruling, but denounced the court itself.

Israel claims that it is building a "security fence" against Palestinian suicide bombers. But it isn't building its "fence"--in reality, a series of barriers, trenches, walls and patrol roads--along the border between Israel and the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Instead, the apartheid wall winds around Israeli settlements and surrounds Palestinian villages, cutting off 15 percent of the West Bank land that Israel has occupied illegally since 1967--and trapping some 300,000 Palestinians in a no-man's land. The route of the wall zig-zags so wildly that its length will be twice that of the so-called "Green Line" dividing Israel and the West Bank.

In reality, Sharon's "security fence" is yet another scheme to steal Palestinian land and reduce the Palestinian population to abject poverty and desperation. The ICJ ruling on the wall came amid an unprecedented hunger strike by well-known Palestinians in East Jerusalem to protest the apartheid wall. Meanwhile, within days, the Palestinian Authority (PA) of Yasser Arafat was rocked by the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, along with renewed allegations of corruption and repression by security forces loyal to Arafat.

TOUFIC HADDAD, coeditor of the Jerusalem-based left-wing journal Between the Lines, wrote this report on the hunger strike for Socialist Worker.

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THE RECENT hunger strike protesting the construction of Israel's "separation" wall through the West Bank and the environs of Jerusalem provided an insight into the state of Palestinian national resistance in confronting the Israeli occupation's relentless colonial policies. The strike, which was initiated by Azmi Bishara, a Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset, was quickly joined by an assortment of prominent Palestinian national figures.

It illustrated a series of dynamics within the Palestinian setting, while also exposing chronic weaknesses that the national movement has yet to overcome. The strike began on July 3 with the erecting of a hunger strikers' tent in the north Jerusalem neighborhood of Ar Ram, yards away from the site of the wall's proposed route, where Israeli construction workers have been busy preparing its foundation beneath the gaze of armed guards.

Bishara declared the strike's intentions on the first day. "While Sharon tries to draw international public attention to his plans for unilateral separation from Gaza, framing them as though they were some form of political concession," Bishara said, "we seek to draw attention to the real processes underway on the ground in the Occupied Territories: unilateral Israeli imposition of borders, destruction of Palestinian communities and an apartheid colonial logic. The world did not tolerate apartheid in South Africa--it must not tolerate its construction here."

The strike also sought to give more prominent international exposure to the ongoing grassroots struggles waged by individual communities affected by the wall's construction--sacrifices and cries for help that have gone largely unnoticed. For example, the village of Biddu, northwest of Ramallah, has waged a lengthy campaign to prevent the appropriation of large swathes of its land for the wall's construction, resulting in beatings, arrest campaigns, tear-gassing and rubber and live bullets shot by the Israeli army. Four protesters were killed, and hundreds of others were injured.

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THE CHOICE of a hunger strike as the form of resistance was also aimed at putting to rest the international community's hypocritical disdain for the forms of Palestinian resistance waged against the Israeli occupation throughout the Intifada--while at the same time sending an important symbolic message. "We consider the battle against the wall to be a battle of life or death: life for our political visions and hopes, or death for all our aspirations," commented Palestinian Legislative Council member and hunger striker Hatem Abdel Qader.

"To accept the wall means to accept that we shall come to live in mass graves, in military encampments, in cement cages. We selected this means of struggle because the hunger strike is the weapon of the prisoner. There is no difference between cages of iron bars and those of cement. Israel is trying to construct a prison for the Palestinians on their own land."

From the onset, it was clear that the hunger strikers' tent had the potential to become a potent protest in both getting the message out regarding the destructive consequences of the wall, while uniting broad sectors of Palestinian society within a non-factionalized umbrella of resistance. This latter achievement is not insignificant considering the Israeli occupation's consistent assault and dismemberment of the national movement through its campaign of assassinations, arrests and the infinitesimal divisions created among Palestinians by the elaborate system of checkpoints, trenches and now walls.

As a result, the tent immediately became a focal point for mobilizations regarding the wall to concentrate and develop momentum. Diverse streams of individuals and solidarity delegations poured into the tent from communities throughout the West Bank, Palestinian communities inside Israel, and even Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Journalists wrote stories and conducted live feeds updating the progress of the strike. Cultural events were held regularly, and international solidarity greetings were read aloud at night to throngs of people who eagerly waited to hear of the strike's impact.

The strike showed the potential for a popular resistance campaign against the Israeli occupation that could unite the struggles of Palestinians on both sides of the Green line, together with international progressive forces. Within the span of a week, 26 people had joined the hunger strike, representing all Palestinian political factions--Muslim and Christian religious figures, concerned men and women, both young and old, as well as two Israelis.

The strike was also stoking international activism in solidarity with Palestinians--giving an indication of what a global anti-apartheid, anti-Wall campaign might look like if allowed to take full form. One week into the strike, on July 9, the International Court of Justice in the Hague issued its ruling regarding the legality of the wall.

The ruling was unequivocal in slamming the wall's illegality (together with all Israeli settlements), demanding its demolition, debunking Israel's "security" pretexts for the construction, and validating Palestinian compensation claims. It laid the legal basis for increased international pressure to be exerted on Israel to abide by the ruling.

Here, differences began to emerge as to what to do with the ruling among the hunger strikers themselves. Those who had joined the strike representing organized political factions largely took the position that the ICJ ruling was an opportune time to end the strike.

"The strike is not important because of its duration," said Abdel Qader. "It was rather important that its message was received--which we think it was. After the ruling, the issue of the wall became the possession of the Palestinian people, and mobilizations should spread to all Palestinian territories. It was now larger than the [hunger strike] tent.

"We had reached the summit and decided that we should stop there, rather than ending it when we were descending and weaker. But that, of course, doesn't mean that we will end our activities. We are leaving the strike onto other programs."

Others argued that what was most important would be what would come after the hunger strike. "We had not determined a time for when to end the strike, but at the same time, it was not intended to be an open-ended strike, with the hope that this experience could be studied and be taken up in another locality at a later date," said Abdel Latif Ghaith, the head of the board of directors of the Addameer Prisoners' Support and Human Rights Association and another hunger striker.

"It is my belief that now is the time for the Palestinians to come together to develop a common strategy that can bring together all the energies being exerted in this direction and to coordinate amongst them. What can civil society do? What can the PA do? What can the people do? This is yet to take place. We are in need of a plan of this type, such that the outcome and the efficacy of our work will be larger than what it is now."

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DUE TO its non-factional nature, questions also surrounded the issue of "control" of the hunger strike--particularly in relationship to the Palestinian Authority. "The PA didn't have an official position on the strike," said Ghaith. "A couple of ministers visited the tent, in addition to regular employees from the legislative council--those who, you might say, were people who could be considered 'closer to the street.' [But] the PA did not have a clear and supportive position. At the same time, I didn't hear them incite against it."

Ghaith also pointed out that Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei (also known as Abu Ala) held a press conference giving the Palestinian position on the International Court ruling on the wall in Abu Dis, not in the hunger strikers' tent. "[The PA] didn't want the voice [declaring the Palestinian response] to be heard coming from the tent," Ghaith said. "They wanted it to come from a different place. I reject this kind of mentality. Perhaps they have their justifications for their positions...But as a citizen, I see that the prime minister should put his energies together with mine. Why not?"

Bishara, the strike's initiator, echoed these concerns. "There was a clear discrepancy between the overall sympathy of the thousands of supporters who came out in solidarity and were busy preparing to spread the strike into solidarity tents on the one hand, and the Palestinian leadership on the other," he said. "Some of them called to express their support. But in general, they didn't look too enthusiastic."

At the same time, the hunger strikers themselves were wary of breaking unity in their ranks "because the news in the papers the next day would be about that, and hence detract focus from the issue at hand," Bishara said. "We know what we did was a great thing. But on the other hand, the strike demonstrated a potential that was not exhausted--a potential to build a great deal of momentum that in the end was not used."

To Bishara, the hunger strike illustrated both the potential and the challenges facing the struggle--as it develops in the context of a complex situation marked by the overwhelming and unrelenting assaults of the Israeli occupation, and the intricacies of internal Palestinian politics. "The dynamic that developed in the hunger strikers' tent--this was the most beautiful thing, which everyone who visited the tent witnessed," Bishara said.

"People were craving for a place within which they could struggle together against the wall." Meanwhile, the "hesitation" of some forces to take part "illustrated in many ways how much of the institutionalized Palestinian civil society has lost the idea of spontaneity.

"Despite the fact that I do believe that most have good intentions in their work, many of them are also stuck in the 'means' to the extent that they have lost sight of the goal. As a result, they end up reproducing themselves, and not asking themselves what they are there for."

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