Since last week, Palestinian prisoners in Israel are on a hunger strike. Why, and what are their demands you may read at length in the Israeli media.
Uri Avnery has his own take.
Give it a thought. It’s an universal issue.
A Very One-Sided War — Uri Avnery
“For all I care, they can starve to death!” announced Tzahi Hanegbi,
after Palestinian prisoners declared an open-ended hunger strike against
prison conditions. Thus the Minister for Internal Security added another
memorable phrase to the lexicon of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Hanegbi became famous (or infamous) for the first time when, as a
student activist, he was caught on camera with his friends hunting Arab
students with bicycle chains. At the time I published a photo of him that
would not have shamed German or Polish students in the 1930s. With a
small difference: in the 30s the Jews were the pursued, now they were the
In the meantime, Hanegbi has changed like many young radicals – he
has turned into an unrestrained careerist. He has become a minister,
wearing elegant suits even on hot summer days and walking with the
typical, self-important gait of a cabinet minister. Now he even supports
Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan, much to the distress of his mother,
Geula Cohen, an extreme-right militant who has not changed her spots.
But beneath the minister’s suit and the statesman’s robe, Tzahi has
remained Tzahi, as evidenced by the total inhumanity of his statement
about the prisoners for whose well-being he is officially responsible.
His influence is not limited to words: the current prison crisis was
caused by his appointment of a new Director of Prisons, who immediately
proceeded to create intolerable conditions for the Palestinian prisoners.
Let’s not dwell too much on the personality of the honorable
minister. It is much more important to turn our thoughts to the strike
Its basic cause is a particularly Israeli invention: the one-sided
The IDF generals declare again and again that we are at war. The
state of war permits them to commit acts like “targeted eliminations”,
which, in any other situation, would be called murder. But in a war, one
kills the enemy without court proceedings. And in general, the killing
and wounding of people, demolition of homes, uprooting of plantations and
all the other acts of the occupiers that have become daily occurrences
are being justified by the state of war.
But this is a very special war, because it confers rights only on
the fighters of one side. On the other side, there is no war, no
fighters, and no rights of fighters, but only criminals, terrorists,
Once there was a clear distinction: one was a soldier if one wore a
uniform; if one did not wear a uniform, one was a criminal. Soldiers of
an invading army were allowed to execute local inhabitants who fired at
them on the spot. But in the middle of the 20th century, things changed.
A worldwide consensus accepted that the members of the French resistance
and the Russian and Yugoslav partisans and their like were fighters and
therefore entitled to the international protection accorded to legitimate
fighters. International conventions and the rules of war were amended
So what is the difference between soldiers and terrorists? Well,
the occupiers say, there is a tremendous difference: Soldiers fight
soldiers, terrorists hurt innocent civilians.
Really? The pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and
killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians – was he a soldier or just
a criminal, a terrorist? And what were the pilots who destroyed whole
cities, like Hamburg and Dresden, when there was no valid military
necessity anymore? The declared aim was to break the will of the German
civilian population and compel them to capitulate. Were the commanders of
the British and American air forces terrorists (as the Nazis indeed
called them, inventing the term “Terrorflieger”)?
What is the difference between an American pilot who drops a bomb on
a Baghdad market and the Iraqi terrorist, who lays a bomb in the same
market? The fact that the pilot has a uniform? Or that he drops his bomb
from a distance and does not see the children he is killing?
I am not saying this, of course, to justify the killing of
civilians. Indeed, I strongly condemn it, whoever the perpetrators may be
– soldiers, guerrillas, pilots above or terrorists below. One law for all.
Soldiers who are captured become prisoners-of-war, entitled to many
rights guaranteed by international conventions. A particular
international organization – the Red Cross – oversees this. P0Ws are not
held for punishment or revenge, but solely in order to prevent them from
returning to the battlefield. They are released when peace comes.
Underground fighters captured by their enemies are often tried as
criminals. Not only are they not entitled to the rights of POWs, but in
Israel their prison conditions are even worse than the inhuman conditions
inflicted on Israeli criminals. The American have learned from us, and
President George W. Bush has been sending Afghan fighters to an infamous
prison set up for them in Guantanamo, where they are deprived of all
human rights, both the rights of POWs and the rights of ordinary criminal
Years ago, when the Hebrew underground organizations were fighting
the British regime in Palestine, we demanded that our prisoners be
accorded the rights of POWs. The British did not accept this, but in
practice prisoners were generally treated as if they were POWs. The
captured underground fighters could enrol for correspondence courses, and
in fact, many of them completed their studies in law and other
professions in British prison camps.
One of the prisoners at that time was Geula Cohen, Tzahi Hanegbi’s
mother. It would be interesting to know how she and her Stern Group
comrades would have reacted if a British police commander had declared
that he didn’t give a damn if she died in prison. Probably they would
have tried to assassinate him. Fortunately, the British behaved
otherwise. They even brought her to a hospital for treatment (where she
promptly escaped with the help of Arab villagers.)
Towards the Irish underground fighters, the British took a different
line. When they declared a hunger strike, Margaret Thatcher let them
starve to death. This episode, on top of her attitude towards workers and
the needy, contributed to her image as an inhuman person.
A humane treatment of political prisoners is preferable even for
purely pragmatic reasons. Ex-prisoners are now filling the upper ranks of
the Palestinian Authority. Men who have spent 10, 15 and even 20 years in
Israeli jails have become political leaders, ministers and mayors. They
speak fluent Hebrew and know Israel well. Almost all of them now belong
to the moderate Palestinian camp, advocating co-existence between Israel
and a Palestinian state. They also head the forces seeking democracy and
reforms in the Palestinian Authority. The fair treatment they got at the
time by the prison personnel must have contributed to this.
But for me, the main thing is that the State of Israel should not
look like Tzahi Hanegbi and his ilk. It is important for me that human
beings – Palestinians as much as Israelis – should not starve to death in
Israeli prisons. It is important for me that prisoners – whether Israelis
or Palestinians – should be accorded humane conditions.
If Tzahi Hanegbi were in prison, I would be demanding the same even