Guantanamo Bay Hunger Strike Echoes Palestinian History


The hunger strike at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay expanded this week as detainees protested perceived unjust conditions at the camp. As the Washington Post reported, the impetus for the hunger strike is a new policy of searching Korans, but many hunger strikers say they are also protesting the policy of holding detainees indefinitely without charge or trial. 

There have been intermittent hunger strikes at Guantanamo Bay since at least 2005, and they mostly haven't accomplished much to date. But the current strike has a chance to succeed in winning significant gains for the prisoners for several reasons.

First, the strike is likely much larger than the military is willing to admit, a signal that if and when the true number of hunger strikers is revealed, it will become more difficult for the U.S. government to ignore their demands. 

Furthermore, the hunger strikers have a relatively modest demand: the military cease its policy of searching Korans. This is clearly feasible, especially since searching Korans is a new practice at Guantanamo, and a respect for religious practice is bedrock of American democracy, so this is something that could easily resonate with many Americans.

A secondary demand of some prisoners, that the military end its practice of indefinite detention without trial, will be harder to accomplish. But a remarkably similar situation in Israel could provide some lessons for the current round of hunger strikes in Guantanamo.

Last year, more than 2,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails joined a massive hunger strike, winning significant concessions from Israeli authorities. As a result of a deal to end the strike, 19 prisoners were released from solitary confinement and prisoners' families living in the Gaza Strip were allowed to visit their imprisoned relatives. And two out of four Palestinians who have been hunger striking for months recently gave up their strike after Israel agreed they will be released in May.

One major reason for the strike was not addressed in the deal, however: Israel's policy of administrative detention, whereby Palestinians deemed a security threat can be held indefinitely without charge or trial. 

The similarities between Israel's administrative detention and America's treatment of prisoners in Guantánamo Bay are striking. As Amy Davidson of The New Yorker reported, only six prisoners of 166 held in Guantanamo are facing trial. The rest are being detained indefinitely in a practice functionally identical to Israel's administrative detention. 

Like the hunger strike in Guantanamo, the hunger strikes in Israeli jails are part of a battle that is far from over. Just today, 4,500 Palestinian prisoners began a three-day hunger strike in response to the death of a prisoner suffering from cancer that hunger strikers say received inadequate care.

Olga Khazan of The Atlantic argues that the Guantánamo hunger strikes will be unsuccessful because the prisoners aren't "sympathetic." The American people, she says, will never support a hunger strike of people perceived as terrorists.

 This is an incredibly ungenerous view of the American people. It wasn't the American public, but rather the American government, that chose to indefinitely imprison people without charge or trial. In fact, President Obama was elected in part on his promise to immediately close the detention facility. 

If asked whether people who have been charged with no crime should be imprisoned in inhuman conditions, the vast majority of Americans would say no. The responsibility now lies with the media, who have often shirked their watchdog duty in regards to Guantanamo, to inform them of the reality of the situation.