Starving for Justice
July 07, 2004

Those who think that Palestinian leaders lack the will and the political savvy to organize effective peaceful protests against Israeli occupation would do well to visit a bustling tent off the Ar-Ram checkpoint on the road between Jerusalem and Ramallah, in which an extraordinary sit-in hunger strike, called five days ago by Dr. Azmi Bishara, the charismatic Israeli-Arab political leader and intellectual, is gathering momentum exponentially. Whether the strikers will eventually achieve their stated goal of bringing to an end Israel’s construction of the separation wall is debatable, but it is clear, from the conviction expressed by them, that they believe strongly enough in their cause to risk their lives for it.

Dr. Bishara, a member of the Israeli Knesset and leader of the National Democratic Assembly (NDA), and an articulate and principled advocate of the Palestinian cause, began his open-ended hunger strike on Saturday to protest the “continued construction of Israel’s separation wall in the occupied West Bank and in the surrounding areas of Jerusalem.” He was immediately joined, upon his announcement, by several political and religious leaders from a wide array of Palestinian political and civil society institutions. By Wednesday morning, the fifth day of the strike, the ranks of those holding their grim vigil in the tent had swollen to seventeen and included a prominent leader of the local Greek Orthodox Church, the Chief Judge of the Islamic Court, as well as a long-time Israeli peace activist. While the numbers continue to grow as we write, they comprise for the moment Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi (Chief Judge of the Islamic Court), the Archmandrite Attallah Hanna (Greek Orthodox Church), Ahmed Ghneim (local leader of Fateh), Hatem Abdel Qader (member PLC), Abdul Latif Ghaith (PFLP), Hani Al-Issawi (Democratic Front), Suhel Khader, Assad Maslamani, Mousa Abu Gharbiyeh, Mahmoud Abdul-Baqi, Ra’fat Ulayan, Judeh Al-Jamal, Hani El Eisawi, Michail Varshawski (Israeli peace activist), Fatmeh Salame, Dima Hamdan, and, of course, Dr. Bishara. In addition, members of two organizations in the United States, the Palestinian American Congress and Palestinians for Peace and Democracy have also begun a hunger strike to express solidarity with those in the tent.

The atmosphere in that tent, where the hunger-strikers have been surrounded for the past five days by dozens of supporters, journalists and activists, is a heady cocktail of excitement, defiance, sorrow, solemnity and pride. The strikers, who have sworn off all food till Israel demolishes all existing portions of the wall and stops all future construction, and who have undertaken to remain in the tent for the entire duration of the strike, seem, for the moment, to be in robust spirits. During a press conference held on Tuesday under the blistering sun, they issued a strongly worded statement as to their motivations:

“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 or achievement, 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 it here.”

Speaking extemporaneously during the conference with a passion that belied his weakened physical state, Dr. Bishara urged all Palestinians, Israelis, and concerned citizens of the world to join the hunger strikers in condemning and countering what he called the global “campaign of misleading” by Israel about the wall, and to participate in the numerous protest activities planned by the strikers over the next few days (which included a general strike on Thursday, collective prayers in the tent on Friday, and protest demonstrations throughout the proposed route of the wall in the areas around Jerusalem on Saturday).

Asked about the timing of the strike, Dr. Bishara explained that, given the Israeli Supreme Court’s ruling last week as to the illegality of the wall in certain areas alone, and not in principle altogether, protesting the fact of the very existence of the wall has become of prime importance to the Palestinians. He chose to embark upon a hunger strike, he explained, not only because he felt that Palestinians have exhausted all other methods of peaceful protest – demonstrations, marches, appeals to the Israeli High Court, he himself having raised the issue on innumerable occasions in the Israeli Knesset – but also because the wall poses an “existential threat to the Palestinian people and we have to respond to this existential threat through existential means.” He urged the spectators, especially those who are members of the international community, to not think of the wall as “yet another detail in the history of the atrocities of the Israeli occupation,” but rather, as an unique issue in and of itself so threatening to the existence of the Palestinians as a society that it calls for, in response, a drastic form of protest commensurate to the threat posed. Hence, the indefinite hunger strike.

When asked about the wide support for the wall among the Israeli electorate, Dr. Bishara said that Israelis support the wall not because they understand all its consequences for the Palestinian people, but because it has been presented to them as an easy way of getting rid of the Palestinian issue without having to fully deal with it. Israelis have been made to feel that, by imprisoning the Palestinians behind walls, they will be made safer forever, but the experience of Gaza, which is a hotbed of militant activity, and where 1.3 million Palestinians already live imprisoned behind walls, should prove to Israelis that such logic is entirely fallacious. Dr. Bishara went on to say that the Israelis should be the first to understand the moral consequences of imprisoning a people within enclaves and ghettos -- words used not only by Palestinians to describe the consequences of the wall, but also by the Israeli High Court of Justice in its ruling last week.

Dr. Bishara ended by warning that Israel has effectively focused the world’s attention on its unilateral disengagement plan from Gaza while creating “new facts on the ground” and grabbing more and more land for itself in the West Bank. While the world – and this, he made sure to point out, includes the Arab world – applauds the disengagement plan, the road that connects Jerusalem to the West Bank is being shut off to Palestinians, and entire villages in the West Bank, like Abu Dis and Qalqilya, have effectively already become ghettos. Very soon, Dr. Bishara warned, “all of greater Jerusalem will be behind the wall, and Sharon will have accomplished all his plans” while the world’s attention is diverted by interminable discussions on the pros and cons of the disengagement plan. The hunger strike is thus, ultimately, Dr. Bishara said, an attempt to draw the world’s attention away from the disengagement plan and to “the real process underway on the ground in the Occupied Territories.”

The long-time Israeli peace activist, Mikhail Varshovsky, spoke briefly after Dr. Bishara to explain his own position on the wall and reasons for joining in the hunger strike. He said he is an Israeli who cares not only for the Palestinians, whose cause he has been working for decades to further, but also for his own people, who, he explained, will be far worse off after the wall has been completed. The slogan used by the Stop the Wall organization, Mr. Varshovsky said, is instructive: “No people between walls, and no walls between people.” Neither can he stand by and watch while Palestinians are put into “prisons, reserves, and Bantustans,” nor can he accept that Israelis should want to live behind 8 meter high walls that cut them off from the rest of the people who live on the land. “This wall,” Mr. Varshovsky concluded, “condemns Israeli society to death.” When pressed by a journalist to explain why as an Israeli he chose to embark upon a hunger strike with Palestinians to protest the activities of his own government, he said, simply, that “when a society puts a whole people in prison, there comes a moment when every decent person should ask himself whether he should not cross the wall and join those on the other side.”