The idea of hunger strikes as a form of nonviolent protest was immortalized by Mohandas Gandhi against the British occupation of India. His hunger strikes captured the hearts and minds of the West, including Americans.
Gandhi’s longest strike was 27 days. Previously, the longest hunger strike had been 97 days by an Irish revolutionary who was protesting the British occupation of Ireland. But the longest hunger strike took place in 1929, when two of Gandhi’s disciples refused food for 116 days.
India eventually became independent in 1947, one year before independence was denied to Palestine, which was occupied by foreign immigrants from Europe who established a Jewish state in a land that was overwhelmingly non-Jewish.
The battle to liberate Palestine, now occupied by Israel, and re-establish the rights of non-Jews has continued ever since; violently in most instances by both sides, but in many instances nonviolently, as well.
Hunger strikes that last 50 days or more usually result in the death of the striker. That’s why it is remarkable that a new hunger strike record is being set by a courageous Palestinian, Samer Issawi, 34, who was born in Issawiya, a Palestinian village located in the demilitarized zone around Mount Scopus which was militarily occupied by Israel in 1967.
Issawi’s hunger strike began on August 1, 2012 and has continued for more than 200 days. Hunger strikes are considered good stories by the mainstream Western media, except when they involve Palestinians.
Issawi’s hunger strike has received little media coverage. It’s been written about by some pro-Arab activists, but their leaders are so inept at communications and public relations that what they have written has received little attention.
It’s a reality in today’s world that civil rights cannot exist without professional public relations. The expansion of media communications beyond the biased and controlled borders of the mainstream news media to include the Internet, news web sites, blogs, Twitter and social media forums has been a double-edged sword for today’s causes.
Today’s media is not like that of 1929. Although they are in an Israeli political headlock, activists can share their words in columns and blogs and circulate them on their social networks on the Internet.
The problem is that their social networks are limited, limited to supporters familiar with Israel’s brutal policies and war crimes. The writings are rarely read by the vast majority of people who live in an Israeli-manipulated stupor of factual manipulation, fictionalized narratives and one-sided stereotypes.
The audience that needs to hear Issawi’s story cannot hear it, because Israel is so good at controlling the media and because the Arabs are incapable of telling their story in an effective manner. That’s why Issawi’s hunger strike has broken a record but no action has been taken, a startling record that should be acknowledged in the civil rights world but is instead ignored.
Despite their cruelty as colonialist occupiers, the British people of the past had a conscience that most Israelis of today clearly lack. Gandhi’s hunger strikes and nonviolent protests inspired the victory of the Indian people. Gandhi’s story was broadcast around the world at a time when the media was undeveloped. One compelling story of human willpower in the face of military might moved the world to sympathize with the weak.
Today’s media is so much larger and more sophisticated. With so many voices, so many tragedies, so many stories, and so many writers, so little is really being absorbed by the public. The Internet “noise” has blurred the voices of justice making it easier today for the pro-Israel movement to tighten its media censorship.
Powerful message lost?
Issawi is doing his part. But his Palestinian and Arab brethren are not. In fact, Issawi’s cause is being hurt by the ineffective Arab activists who are driven by hatred and emotion more than justice. They exploit the tragedy of Palestine and the stories of its victims and use them as bludgeons to batter Israel’s image, rather than using them to win sympathy.
They cannot stop themselves from hating because their anger is so great. The suffering validates their vengeance. Every Palestinian who dies becomes a martyr for their ineffective, failed cause. The rejectionists want everything or nothing. They’re willing to see every last Palestinian die rather than accept compromise, even if it means achieving nothing.
Issawi has righteousness on his side. He is a dissident and civil rights activist, sadly one of thousands put in Israel’s brutal military prison Gulag. Held without trials or even charges, they are denied justice and live in the shadows ignored by the mainstream media and civil rights groups.
Issawi’s message is a powerful peaceful nonviolence that if handled properly could sway world sympathy and force the world, including Americans, to see Israel in its true light as a brutal occupier which denies civil rights to non-Jews. But the cause has been embraced by a poisoned coterie of Arab fanatics whose hatred is so strong that they would rather lose everything than compromise for something.
Meanwhile, the moderates who are the Arab majority have surrendered to the cacophony of the extremist voices and are incapable of coming together out of sheer exhaustion. Moderate Arabs have been on a mental hunger strike from hope for more than 65 years.
Until the fanatics are silenced and the moderates find their voice, the Samer Issawis of the world will find themselves setting world records for the longest hunger strikes without results. That is the true tragedy.
This was first published in the Saudi Gazette on Feb. 10, 2013.
Ray Hanania is an Arab-American Palestinian Christian journalist, professional communicator, media consultant, author, standup comedian, satirist, filmmaker, radio talk show host. He covered Chicago City Hall for 16 years from 1976 through 1992, including every Chicago Mayor "from Daley to Daley." He is a two-time winner of Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick-O-Type Award. In 1990 he was nominated by the Chicago Sun-Times as Pulitzer Prize candidate.