Our [mis]understanding of history on day 12 of Hana al-Shalabi’s hunger strike

Rana Hamadeh | Feb 27, 2012

Hana Yahya al-Shalabi was among the Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for Gilad Shalit in October 2011. When she was released she had been under administrative detention for two years already. On February 16th she was arrested again and given another detention order for six months. She began a hunger strike immediately, and continuing what Khader Adnan began, she is fighting against the illegal practice of administrative detention, and her cruel treatment at the hands of Israeli forces. Today is day 12 of her hunger strike.

Drawing connections in our understanding of history

Hana Al-Shalabi has reminded me of Black Panther activist Assata Shakur. After six attempts by American intelligence at framing her with various bank robberies and murders, all of which were dismissed in court, Assata was charged with the murder of two policemen. Her eventual conviction was the result of an unfair trial which ignored evidence in her favour in order to ensure her guilt. Records that have now surfaced show that a “counterintelligence campaign was conducted by the FBI in cooperation with state and local law enforcement agencies designed to criminalize, defame, harass, and intimidate Assata.” The FBI systemically targeted black groups and individuals, Martin Luther King being among the first targets, but including thousands of less prominent ecivil rights activists. Assata experienced among the worst treatment of any woman prisoner in the US, even being jailed for a period in a men’s prison. After about two years, she escaped from prison and took exile in Cuba. [Assata: an autobiography]

In her own words, “although the U.S. government has done everything in its power to criminalize me, I am not a criminal, nor have I ever been one. In the 1960s, I participated in various struggles: the black liberation movement, the student rights movement, and the movement to end the war in Vietnam. I joined the Black Panther Party. By 1969 the Black Panther Party had become the number one organization targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, because the Black Panther Party demanded the total liberation of black people, J. Edgar Hoover called it “greatest threat to the internal security of the country” and vowed to destroy it and its leaders and activists.”

The name 'Assata' means 'she who struggles' - one reason I was reminded of hunger striking Hana al-Shalabi

What really perplexes me is that the dominant impression in the West is that of ‘racism has been abolished due to an evolution in human goodness’. The reality of racial oppression, to many in the West (not including visible minorities), is a thing of the past that could not return. Two things must be understood:

Slavery did not end in the United States due to a realization of human beings as equals, it was rather quite unimportant how many people were in support or against the cause. In reality, the North fought for the end of slavery because they could not economically compete in the cotton industry with the South who had slaves working without pay. The figure of the abolition of slavery, Abraham Lincoln was de facto an avid racist:

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the White and Black races; that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with White people, and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the White and Black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.. there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the White race.” – Abraham Lincoln, Fourth Lincoln-Douglas Debate September 18, 1858

Second, that while most people will be quick to outcry the crimes of racial segregation in North America in the 60s and 70s, they remain silent in the face of current crimes. One major difference between Assata and Hana, is that Israel did not have to frame Hana – it simply arrested her on ‘secret evidence’ and just skipped the trial. There is a common view that the worst evils (often considered to be Hitler) are in the past. Rather than studying history to avoid repeating the same crimes, history has been used to distance genocide and oppression from the present. Subconsciously, we cannot comprehend that the very crimes of the ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples in North America, the slavery of blacks, or the holocaust of millions by the Nazis, are continuing today in different forms – such as the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

This is what brought me to unlearn my history education and realize that change did not come about necesssarily through a collective understanding of humanity and equality. As long as there is a group that has something to gain from the oppression of another, those ‘winners’ will not denounce their privilege unless they are economically or militarily forced to. The reality is that if the people’s armies were to try to go up against governments of the world with military might, they would be crushed. Economically, however, we can force powers like Israel to conform to humanitarian law.

With a movement like Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, raising awareness about Palestine has become more valuable. Awareness in itself cannot end oppression, it requires action alongside it. Hana al-Shalabi is raising awareness about the illegality of administrative detention, but what Israel fears is not the loss of her life to a hunger strike – it is the loss of a reputation and the investors that come along with it.

Administrative Detention

Administrative detention is a process that permits Israel to arrest and detain Palestinians on ‘secret evidence’ without charging them or allowing for a trial. Military Order 1591 authorizes military commanders to detain someone with “reasonable grounds to presume that the security of the area or public security require the detention.” The 6-month detention orders can be renewed indefinitely and are often renewed on or just before the expiry date. This leaves detainees not knowing why they were arrested nor for how long they will remain. The “security” grounds Israel cites are used frequently, and sometimes administrative detention is used as a form of collective punishment (a war crime). For example, from March- October 2002, during the second Intifada, Israeli Occupying Forces arrested over 15,000 Palestinians during mass arrest campaigns, rounding up males in cities and villages between the ages of 15 to 45. [IAK] Administrative detention, by international law, is allowed only in emergency situations, and detainees are still entitled to a trial and to defend themselves. Israel’s practices are thus evidently in violation of international law.

Gender-based sexual abuse and humiliation

HanaAl-Shalabi’s report with Addameer, a prisoner support association, gives the following details of her first arrest on 14 September 2009. At 1:30 am, a dozen Israeli military jeeps surrounded her house and ordered the entire family outside. They entered the house and searched it. One soldier, removed framed pictures of Hana’s brother Samer, who was killed in 2005 by the Israeli army, tore them apart, and walked over the pieces in front of the family. Soldiers began to curse at Hana and her family. When her father tried to intervene, a soldier assaulted him with the butt of his gun. Hana’s mother fainted and soldiers placed Hana under arrest.

As Hana was being transferred, her traditional Muslim dress worn over her home clothing came upon, uncovering parts of her body. She was handcuffed and could not prevent it. Male soldiers took pictures of her, “consciously exploiting her situation, knowing she would feel offended and humiliated by such photos.”

Hana was put in solitary confinement for 8 days, in a cell without any natural light. She could not differentiate between day and night. Since it was the month of Ramadan, Hana refused all meals and water throughout the 8 days in order to respect her fast.

Not unlike other Palestinians in Israeli custody, Hana was subject to sexual and physical abuse. During her questioning, one of the interrogators called her “habibti” (“my darling”) in a provocative manner. “Feeling humiliated and angry at the interrogator’s offensive use of an intimate term, Hana started shouting at him. The interrogators responded by slapping her on her face and beating her on her arms and hands. The guards then took her back to her cell where they tied her to the bed frame and continued humiliating her by taking pictures of her laying in that position.”

Addameer states that they are ” greatly concerned by the verbal abuse Israeli detaining authorities display towards Palestinian female prisoners by directing sexual threats towards them and using inappropriate, vulgar language. Addameer contends that this behavior is done in a deliberate effort to exploit Palestinian women’s fears by playing on patriarchal norms as well as gender stereotypes within particular customs of Palestinian society.”

Hana spent 17 days in Kishon Detention Center, and for the entire time was not given a change of clean clothes. After her administrative detention order was issued, she was moved to HaSharon Prison. Due to overcrowding, she was kept in the same area as female Israeli criminal offenders. It is a direct violation of Isralie Prison Service Regulations for administrative detaineees to be held with prisoners who have been convicted of a crime. “Moreover,” says Addameer, Palestinian female prisoners “detained in the same sections as Israeli criminal offenders… are almost always discriminated against, enjoy fewer recreation hours and are often subjected to humiliation and abusive language from Israeli prisoners, who threaten them of physical attack. As a result, Palestinian women live in constant fear and often experience insomnia, and other psychological problems for the entire time they are detained in the same sections with Israeli women.”

Freedom for hunger striking prisoner, Hana al-Shalabi

Leave a comment

8 Comments

  1. mohammadalqinneh

     /  February 27, 2012

    Amazing piece! You’re a real talent and I enjoy reading all of your articles🙂 Keep it up!

    Reply
  2. Great piece Rana.
    I always feel frustrated that people always seem to forget (or simple not know) about the struggle of African Americans. They just associate it with Martin Luther King. He was assassinated in the 60’s and the struggle did not achieve results until late 80’s or early 90’s. Thanks to active groups like the Black Panthers who everyone seem to not know about, or deliberately omit from the history of the struggle.

    But I have 2 comments. First, you can’t compare both situation. In the situation of African American struggle, it’s a struggle within the society and within the system against an internal oppressor. Our struggle is against a foreign occupation. So laws of trial are different.

    Second, I’m against the calls for trial. In our situation we are war prisoners. We don’t need to defend ourselves in the courts of the occupation. And we should not be calling for it.
    I explain more in the blog I wrote yesterday:
    http://palestineyouthvoice.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/war-prisoners-not-political-prisoners/

    Reply
    • You make a really good point. I think it would be more accurate to describe the African American struggle with 1948 Palestinians. I’m reading a collection of essays by Palestinian women citizens of 48 like Nahla Abdo and indeed the similarities are greater.

      Reply
    • I was on my way to work and didn’t have time to finish my thoughts. Indeed there was actually not much in common between the two women – I was drawing the connection for two reasons. One, because they share the gendered narrative of oppressed/imprisoned women. Second, because in the West, the African American struggles are looked back on as something entirely legitimate, where it is still difficult to say the word “Palestine” in the public sphere. By referencing Assata, I was using something that Westerners can relate to in order to draw attention to the current situation in Palestine.

      Also, something I want to clarify. I don’t think that BDS is the only form of resistance, and I support several other forms. I think my wording was unclear on that and I didn’t intend to delegitimize other forms of resistance.

      Reply
  3. Excellent post and excellent blog. I have reposted your opening paragraph plus the first sentence of your second paragraph with a trackback here.

    I think the struggle comparison you are making is absolutely valid and insightful.

    See: http://ridwanlaher.blogspot.com/2012/02/rana-hamadey-our-misunderstanding-of.html

    Onward!
    Ridwan

    Reply

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