In early May 2002, after months of observing the Palestinian struggle, 24 internationals made a food run into Bethlehem’s besieged Church of the Nativity. Eleven internationals made it inside. The other thirteen were arrested and detained in an illegal Israeli prison in Hebron, Palestine. To protest their impending deportation, some of the activists went on a hunger strike, demanding that they be allowed to freely return instead of being barred from the state of Israel for 10 years.
Here, a friend of one of the activists reflects on the broader implications of their hunger strike. .
Massacre, so easily mind-numbing, takes on a whole new meaning when it involves people you know. Which is probably why the US government was in no hurry for the US prisoners of the Israeli Occupational Forces (IOF) to come home. These internationals were there when young Israeli soldiers rolled through Jenin, showering everyone with a wall of lead and blood. They were there to watch the desperate rummaging through rubble for belongings and family, intact or not. They were there on April 2 when, seeking refuge, around 200 Palestinians ran to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and they were there to watch them slowly starve and suffer as their food and water dwindled and expired. Exactly one month later, as supporters in the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), 24 internationals made a food run into the church, using their unjust but real higher status of foreign citizenship to protect the trapped Palestinians. It was their second attempt, and it succeeded. Eleven internationals made it inside. The other thirteen were arrested and detained in an illegal Israeli prison in Hebron, Palestine.
The thirteen broke no law. They were delivering humanitarian relief. Furthermore, their captors had (and have) no legal jurisdiction over Bethlehem, nor anywhere else in the West Bank. It was illegal for them to arrest internationals, it was illegal for them to fire on the Church of the Nativity, it was illegal for them to be armed, murdering, occupying. It has been illegal since they first set foot in the West Bank. This is the reason internationals are in Palestine.
And this is why a number of them refused to be deported. Having broken no laws, and having not been charged with any crime, they wanted free return to Palestine. They wanted to continue the work that not enough people are doing, support of a people under attack by the one of the most powerful military and political forces in the world. But they cannot simply say “please”. The Israeli government and US embassy will not listen to them; they are prisoners.
In prison, power takes completely different form. Thirteen internationals do not have the power to walk away, to act on their convictions by bringing material aid and vigilant eyes to the centers of massacre and devastation. They cannot directly help, so a new power emerges.
They stop eating, and then, as the US embassy and media and Israel’s Minister of the Interior do nothing, they stop drinking water. They can’t send their stories through email anymore, so they speak with the fragility of their personal, particular bodies.
They say, “If the U.S. government won’t look at Camp Jenin, at the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) as the IOF, won’t even take sides with UN observers trying to see what the hell has happened here during the media blackout in the last six weeks, then look at us, your family, friends, lovers, mentors, neighbors. Look at us and then once you’re looking, listen to what we’re saying, what we did, and then open your eyes a little wider and see why we came here in the first place. We’re starving ourselves not to be martyrs, but because it’s the only thing we can do to make you look.”
Their power is literally the sum of our empathy. The power of personal connection, of friends, family, acquaintances-this is the power that brought these individuals to Palestine, and filled them with love and determination to sustain their solidarity. Of course this power already existed. Close friends and family of ISM internationals thought about them every day as they made their way through the occupied zones of Ramallah, Bethlehem, Camp Jenin. But the friends of friends, the extended family, those who know of them, the friends of their mothers; for them perhaps the hunger strike put Palestine on the map.
If you called the embassy in mid-May, you know that the hunger strikers “are fine,” in fact, “only one of them is hunger striking.” Also it is a “rumor” that one of them passed out after 9 days without food and a few days without water. You know too that the US Embassy “can’t tell the Israeli government what to do,” even though the US has been financing them to do what they do since 1949. Members of the embassy have no interest in the political reason for the imprisonment, because they are “diplomats,” not politicians.
“But you are in a land where people are committing genocide,” I say to the faceless voice in Tel Aviv, “genocide. Is this not of personal concern to you?” The agitated, rapid-speaking man at the other end of the line does not answer this question. Because this genocide does not involve anyone that the embassy officials know.
We who know these individuals are caught between the Free __________ (first name of prisoner here) Campaign and the other reason for this hunger strike. The acts of these people are tethered to us by our knowledge of their smiles, their poetry, their fierce convictions. They hover in our hearts as we eat breakfast, as we wake at the first light of day wondering if they can feel our love and worry across the time zones and the convoluted versions of truth we struggle to navigate through.
But we also realize that our friends have refused to eat because, as Trevor Baumgartner, one of the detainees, writes from Israeli prison in Ramle on May 9, “we know that this struggle is more than about individual fates.” It is a struggle against decades of human rights violations, and a struggle for international attention to those atrocities. In Palestine, the Zionist entity (Israel) is engaged in a calculated and systematic demolition of the Palestinian people that is both material and psychological. IOF soldiers call this a “purification”. They are not interested only in occupying this land. They wage a battle of cultural annihilation, in which soldiers enter apartments, sweep the room with their eyes, select the photo of a loved one, smash it out of its frame, tear it to bits, and flush it down the toilet (Ramallah- March 2002).
This is not only about land. This is about people and how they weave their humanity together into survival. A people who hold freedom and justice and love as carefully and hopefully and determinedly in their hands as you do. They send their stories to their friends on the outside, who are our mothers and friends and teachers and lovers, who are you and me. They are talking to us. Our friends on hunger strike in Israel are using their delicate bodies and strong spirits as megaphones for the voices of their Palestinian friends, who are eleven years old, sixty years old, thirty-five years old and who are as varied as the personalities and dreams in your neighborhood. Listen to us, listen to our friends, they say.
Hunger strikes seem to be heroic acts. They set up their strikers as martyrs. But this is only because so often we who are moved by humans inflicting suffering upon themselves for a deep conviction, don’t look beyond the individual to the context of the strike. In the case of the ISM prisoners, many of them planned to return to their home countries to speak and write about what they’d witnessed and experienced. They wanted to inspire others to actively join the struggle for Palestinian human rights and autonomy.
It was not in their interest to just shut up and get out of prison to safety ASAP, because their interests are not only individual. Fighting the fact of their arrest and imprisonment is in their own interests and simultaneously in the interest of “the greater cause” they are engaged in. For this reason, after several days on hunger strike, the US detainees decided to go home, whether freely or by deportation (which would ban them from entering Israel for at least 10 years). There is work to be done outside Palestine. Their words need to be heard. The stories of their friends in Palestine need to be known in the world. We need them here to cut through the media blackout and government lies.
We are living in a time of intense and righteous dissent. As the despots of the US create more insidious foreign and domestic policy disasters, I struggle, as many do, to develop a sense of power and action that feels effective. I try not to get paralyzed with overwhelming dread while watching imbeciles blunder at the helm of this country.
As humans struggling to live meaningful lives in whatever circumstances, our most powerful tool is human connection. The people we ally ourselves with, whom we teach, learn from, and love are our sources of strength and growth. Real and personal connection is how we lend strength to people across the world.
At the time of this writing, at least 5 of the internationals from the Church of the Nativity action remain imprisoned in Israel. If and when they do all go home, will the massive personal support people gave them in phone calls, faxes, media campaigns, and conversations fade? That support transferred through those internationals to their Palestinian friends who haven’t gone home, who are home, and whose fact of homeland is the source of their torture and massacre by the Israeli government. Their struggle and need is not fading.
Our friends may cease to provide the easy, urgent connection to the Palestinian struggle, but the power of our empathy remains. There are things to do for those friends of your friends in Palestine. Those who’ve been there will not hesitate to make suggestions.
I don’t personally know somebody everywhere. Do you? Do you know somebody who knows somebody? Maybe you make it your business to make some new friends. So that when atrocities fill the news and flood our minds to the point of tempting paralysis and ambivalence, we are able to defy the attack on our power and actively support Palestinians and people all over who need support.
The media can inundate our minds with lies. But if we insist on opening ourselves to people who bring stories direct from the source, then the strength of human solidarity can challenge and even halt massacre, in Palestine and everywhere.