Reclaiming Humanity in Palestinian Hunger Strikes: Revolutionary Subjectivity and Decolonizing the Body
The deployment of the physical body into a site of struggle and resistance remains one of the most poignant and controversial methods of protest. Due to its tremendous toll, practising hunger strikes have always provoked extreme reactions, from bitter irony to deepest admiration.
In just a matter of days, physical and mental deterioration begin to take effect. Ultimately, it can lead to death.
However, despite this high cost risk, hunger strikes have become a long-standing tradition and weapon for Palestinian prisoners, whose revolutionary subjectivity, according to Ashan Ajour, is exercised through this radical political action in the Israeli jails to not only regain, but also maintain dignity and humanity.
In her book, based on the post-Oslo period, Reclaiming Humanity in Palestinian Hunger Strikes, she writes:
“The subjectivation process that emerges in hunger strike resistance can be seen as deconstructing and dismantling the structural moment of generative loss in order to create another mode of being, a moment that goes beyond loss and dispossession.
The hunger strikers associate dignity and freedom with their anti -colonial resistance, treating it as an integral part of their humanity.
Since Israel's bloody capture, illegal annexation and military occupation of the occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza in 1967, Israel has incarcerated thousands of Palestinians, many of them political prisoners held under what is called administrative detention, without charges or trial, based on secret evidence.
In protest, many of those detainees have turned to hunger strikes - a long embodied resistance adopted by desperate prisoners around the world, in places like Guantánamo Bay, Turkiye or Northern Ireland, all of which Ashjan details in her book.
The plight of prisoners remains central to the Palestinian cause, especially given that Israel uses detention to crush resistance to its occupation. This is attempted in a variety of ways.
Common forms of physical and mental torture which are imposed by Israeli officers during interrogation and while in detention include painful handcuffing, forced in painful stress positions and sleep deprivation.
There have also been reports and accounts of threats of rape, and actual rape or sexual assault of, mostly, Palestinian women by Israeli prison personnel.
Moreover, former detainees have also reported being forced to watch the torture of fellow prisoners to frighten them into compliance with the interrogations, or even being threatened with the detention and torture of their family members, which has been carried out, on occasion.
Ashjan refers to each of these accelerating periods of torture and threats inflicted on the prisoners as “turning points”, crucial moments during processes of subjectivation that finally result in prisoners resorting to a hunger strike to protest their abusive treatment and prison conditions.
In this emancipatory process, she also delves into how the passive prisoners transform into “active victims” the moment they declare their open-ended hunger strike as they are reclaiming their self-determination and transferring fate into their own hands.
An extremely readable book, Ashjan is at her best when studying her one-to-one interviews with the Palestinian former hunger strikers she interviewed shortly after their release, as well as their wives and mothers who were also weakening with worry. On many occasions, she details how the participants failed to rationalise their experience, words failed and the tears flowed.
They need compassion, she explains in her book. Her conscious decision to not shy away from expressing empathy as the former prisoners recounted their distressing abuse and suffering at the hands of Israeli prison authorities, only enriches and adds great value to her research.
She writes: The hunger strikers’ stories are rich and complex and required resilience. The emotional toll entailed by this work connected with the collective pain of all Palestinians. I took to heart Ruth Behar’s comment that anthropology that doesn’t break your heart just isn’t worth doing (Behar 1997, p. 177) and thus tried to produce a piece of research that is genuine and faithful to people’s suffering. Because the research topic required compassion and human empathy, the boundaries were disrupted and shifted. It was difficult for me to keep my distance and detach myself when I dealt with their suffering. I could not set boundaries whilst they recalled their pain involving traumatic situations. This affected our interaction and led to a free dialogue from ‘the heart’.
Ashjan’s profiles on each participant is brief, as she prioritises focusing on why and how they were arrested and under what circumstances the Palestinian prisoners were driven to protest in this way.
Her main emphasis is on the psychological reasons for hunger striking and the final fall-out between the prisoners and Israeli authorities. The deeply emotive analysis following excerpts from the interview with the hunger strikers is often harrowing; chapters 6) The Pre-hunger-strike Stage: The Dispossession of Humanity and 7) Reclaiming Dispossessed Humanity: The Decision to Hunger Strike are particularly profound.
Resistance and human subjectivity is at the heart of her study and the hunger striker’s ability to gain control through immaterial strength that develops with the deterioration of the body shines through in each case.
Readers are enlightened to how the dehumanisation and micro-aggression, which aims at assaulting the prisoners, instead strengthens them in relation to their oppressor. However, what really strikes the reader is when Ashjan stresses the patriarchal gendered stereotypes exercised by Israeli prison authorities against the female Palestinian hunger strikers, who we hear so little of in the media.
By mustering every ounce of courage and resilience, the female hunger strikers have also successfully weaponised their bodies as powerful tools of resistance against both colonialism and patriarchy, despite the gendered methods of torture, such as threats of sexual torture and rape.
The writer demonstrates how female active victims also have political objectives that they want to achieve and power structures that they want to challenge. They are just as dedicated to the Palestinian political cause, and will resort to hunger striking when faced with only two choices: freedom or death.
Itaf Ilyan, a female political prisoner who had engaged in hunger strikes in the 1990s, shares:
In the beginning they just told me you ‘look good and kind and it seems that you will cooperate with us easily, so just tell us the story’. When I refused to cooperate with the interrogators, they started to insult me, using abusive language and cursing my mother and father with dirty, abusive words. The interrogator was threatening to rape me. He ripped off jilbabi (my dress); at this moment I stared at him and did not utter a word. When I gave him the look, he stopped interrogating me and another person came. This one was old. He told me that he would protect me but wanted me to tell the story of the operation I was accused of. I kept silent, he kept trying with me until the morning, but I was on ‘speaking strike’. When he gave up, he insulted my mother using abusive words, and then he brutally hit my face with a cup of tea he was holding, which caused serious injuries to my teeth and nose. Throughout the pain of this injury, I stayed silent, even though in a normal situation I would have cried or shouted. This is the challenge. I was in front of my enemy, that’s why I did not trust his kindness from the beginning … The barrier always stays between us and the enemy and, therefore, I never succumbed to any kindness which might make me go along with my enemy.
The feeling of oppression and anger over their abysmal treatment is a powerful resource for all hunger strikes, through which Ashjan’s insightful research guides readers to understand the expressive and affective capacities of the body and mind to resist.
A repetitive process identified in each participant is the intensifying strength of the mind, the more the body gets weaker and the more Israeli authorities become hesitant due to their loss of control.
There is pride and honour in reclaiming the power of life and death from the claws of oppressors, to achieve a moral goal towards a collective political cause.
A worthy research into the huger striking subjectivity, the book best reveals how Palestinian hunger strikers are living proof that Israel cannot colonise their will, mind and soul through their strategies of resistance they have developed over time in prison, to fight for the Palestinian dream, for freedom and self-determination.