marwan barghouti Mural of Marwan Barghouti, the most prominent hunger striker. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The media’s refusal to report on the plight of the Palestinians works to normalise the Israeli occupation, writes Jen Izaakson

1600 Palestinian prisoners have been on hunger strike for over one month. 200 more joined them last week. Not that you’d know it. The response of Israeli authorities has been pure punitive punishment and unabashed brutality: all visitations cancelled, forcible removal to solitary confinement and government ministers calling for execution.

There is little awareness of these events because the prisoners are Palestinian. Israel/Palestine is a sticky area for journalists to navigate at the best of times. Those with enough editorial support to go out on a limb are often the least likely to bat for the dispossessed. But the mainstream media blackout remains extraordinary.

The strike’s beginning enjoyed brief notice in The Independent, but its progress was ignored. Imagine if 1800 Iranian dissidents were on hunger strike? It would be a feature on Newsnight. Imagine if 1800 Tibetans were on hunger strike, protesting China’s occupation? Liberal journalists would be falling over themselves to document the phenomenon. Caroline Lucas would be quoted. The Guardian’s pages would be saturated with material on the history of Lhasa. The Dalai Lama’s piece would be tweeted by Jonathan Freedland himself.

Since the strike began on April 17th there have been few cracks in a near total Western media blackout. The New York Times initally published an op-ed by Marwan Barghouti, the most prominent political figure involved in the strike, sparking a response from the Israeli government designating the article ‘media terrorism’. The man dubbed the Palestinian Mandela, and likely future Presidential candidate, used the op-ed to call for the two state solution and advocate peaceful resistance to achieve it. Chilling. In response, the Israeli Transport Minister, Yisrael Katz, called for the execution of Barghouti, later upping the death stakes by calling for the mass execution of all the strikers. Perhaps far-right Israeli members of the Knesset divide fridge space in the parliamentary kitchen on the basis of who demands most dead Palestinians and Katz missed his target for bottom shelf last week. Everything in Israeli politics is tilted towards matters of territory, after all…

It does not seem to matter who is willing to write about the Palestinian hunger strike – it cannot be deemed relevant. An example? The Observer declined an article detailing the strike by Israeli MK Haneen Zowabi, according to someone from the press office of the Campaign to Release Palestinian Prisoners. Most publications would surely be happy to have a high profile politician write for them, but Palestine’s struggle is somehow an exception. Especially as no issue could right now be more important for the future of the conflict.

As prisoners begin their second month of fasting, the effects of severe and permanent medical complications can occur. Beyond 45 days, death is a very real risk, due to cardiovascular collapse or severe infection. 76 strikers from Ofer prison were recently moved to medical facilities due to ill health, a further 36 before the weekend joined them and were transferred to Hadarim field hospital. As we enter this dangerous period one inevitable ending or another draws near: either the hunger strikers obtain some small justice from the Israeli authorities or they will die. The latter outcome will have an enormous impact on how Palestine’s bid for liberation develops. The demise of those, like Barghouti, advocating for peaceful resistance and the two-state consensus, will transform the terms of possibility and mode of struggle. We all know what the alternative is: a return to armed resistance as political desperation takes its grip as a last chance possibility of a Palestinian state slips out of sight.

The prisoners’ demands are basic: installation of a telephone booth to facilitate contact with relatives and lawyers, the restoration of twice monthly visitations (reduced to one per month by the Red Cross), allowing ‘secondary’ family members such as grandchildren to visit. There is also a demand for the doubling of visitation time, from 45 minutes to 1 hour and a half. All of these are reasonable implementations for jail systems in any liberal democracy, as Israel claims to be. Israeli authorities could immediately agree to this basic improvement of conditions, but allowing collective action to deliver results would surely testify to its power, becoming a model for future strikes.

The media blackout has aided the Israeli PR machine to paint the prisoners as murderers living in easy conditions. The settlers holding barbeques outside the prisons to mock the strike, photos of soldiers gleefully chowing down on burgers, have passed with little record. The BBC’s only mention of the strike so far is reporting on the video leaked by Israeli authorities that purports to show Barghouti eating in his cell. The footage was said by Barghouti’s spokesperson to be from 2012, and if recent court photographs are scrutinised, it becomes clear that Barghouti now cuts an older, greyer haired figure than he did five years ago. This was too great an investigative task for BBC journalism.

Since the hunger strike began there has been an uptick of resistance on the streets of Palestine. No settlers or soldiers have been injured, but the erupting protests have led to hundreds shot by the IDF and one young man killed a week last Friday in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh. Again, there has been almost no coverage in the press. Partly, violence against Palestinians has been repeated for so many decades it has become routine, but there is also an underlying lethargy and reluctance to allow the conditions of Palestinians to be represented.

The colonised have always historically been denied victim status; otherwise their colonisation may not appear natural or necessary. Ignoring the plight of the Palestinians works to normalise the occupation and in turn justify the actions of Israeli authority in enforcing it. If the world woke up one morning to the reality on the ground – the cruelty of apartheid roads, inequality under the law, the everyday racism of ‘security checks’ and segregated schools – most people would be shocked at what the mainstream media had been hiding for so long. A grand reveal is not in their interest.

The hunger strike is centrally about inhuman prison conditions, but more widely a call for revolt against the direction of the conflict. The train towards one state is speeding to its destination. This is not a state of one person one vote that many Leftists advocate, which would make the Palestinians the majority, but the project of colonisation complete: annexation of the West Bank into Israel, leaving no recognisable state of Palestine. A network of islands housing the Palestinian populace, broken up by fortress settlements, connected by highway networks allowing settlers fast access into Israel proper. Gaza, not even part of this glorious picture, is said by the UN to be no longer inhabitable by 2020.

The core reason Israel imprisons Marwan Barghouti is because he could avert this future. Liked by both Fatah and Hamas, Barghouti enjoys enormous popularity with the Palestinian population. To put how significant and rare his political popularity is, consider that ruling party Fatah wracks up only a 1500 membership. Barghouti could be the leader that unites the Palestinians, its political factions and all sections of society. It is the threat of being able to lead his people to freedom that Israel so greatly fears. We all have a responsibility in defying the future currently under construction by Israeli government policy: dead Gazans and a carved up West Bank dominated by armed settlers. The first task is supporting the hunger strike until its victory and the second is expediting the freedom of one Marwan Barghouti.

Note: On the day this article was published, the strike ended after negotiations between Marwan Barghouti and the Israeli authorities. 

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