What sense do we make of over 2,000 Palestinians engaged in an open ended hunger strike, saying “we either live in dignity or we die”?
And dying is what they seem willing to do this month. Two of the hunger strikers reached 77 days without food (Bobby Sands died after 66).
As people were close to death, Egypt negotiated a deal and the strikers have said they will take food, in exchange for a commitment by Israel to limit administrative detention, permit family visits for people from Gaza, and the release of 17 people from solitary confinement.
The hunger strike - which was barely acknowledged by the Western media or politicians, including in Australia - illustrates the desperation that drives the Palestinian people in order to have their voices heard.
A principal concern the hunger strikers have is with Israel’s policy of administrative detention where Palestinians are held often for years at a time without charge and on the nod of a military judge.
This month marks the 64th anniversary of what Israelis call their independence, and what Palestinians call the Nakba – or catastrophe. This is the time when 64 years ago more than 700,000 Palestinians were banished from their homes, as a result of decisions taken by a war-weary international community, pushed by groups of determined and ruthless Jewish fighters, which created one state for one people and failed miserably to deliver justice for those natives of Palestine who were affected by that decision.
Many of those Palestinians and their descendants are still living in refugee camps in neighbouring countries without rights and without hope. As far as the Palestinians are concerned, the catastrophe is continuing.
In the West Bank, which has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967, the UN reports that there has been a 144% increase in violence from Settlers in the last two years, including an increase in attacks on Mosques. Ten thousand trees (mostly income generating olive trees) were destroyed last year alone settlers and the occupying authorities. A vast majority of these politically motivated crimes are never punished. Additionally in the same period 1,100 Palestinian homes were destroyed by the Israeli authorities and, despite UN resolutions and international condemnation, Israel continues illegally to build settlements on Palestinian land.
For those of us Australians who follow the situation of the Palestinians out of a sense of sympathy for the victims, outrage at Israel’s disgraceful behaviour, and derision for the empty words of Western governments who fail to stop the injustice, the actions of the hunger strikers are clearly understandable.
More Australians for whom the sense of a fair go is a natural instinct are questioning why Western countries, including Australia, continue to turn a blind eye to Israel’s pitiless oppression of a neighbouring civilian population. They also ask why is it that Israel is pursuing actions that so obviously run counter to efforts to bring about reconciliation and a just and lasting peace for all parties.
So what can Palestinians do? Despite countless resolutions, the UN has been unable to secure any improvements for the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority tried last year to get recognition of Statehood in the UN – but the US halted progress by stating it would veto any moves.
Israel’s apparent decision to negotiate an end to the hunger strike is a positive move. But one is left wondering if its decision had more to do with a wish to shore up its shaky claims to be a western-style democracy which adheres to the usual standards of human rights and decency that we in the West more or less enjoy, than with a genuine concern for the Palestinian prisoners who have placed their lives on the line.
The sooner Israel realises it has no option other than to make peace with its Arab neighbours, the better it will be for all. It is time politicians in Western countries took a stand against Israel’s intransigence and continuing oppression of the Palestinian people. That will only happen when all good citizens with a conscience start to hold our politicians to account.
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