How detention without charge links Israel and apartheid South Africa
Will hunger strikes spark mass revolt in Palestine like they did in South Africa?
The hunger strikes undertaken by Hana al-Shalabi and Khader Adnan have drawn international attention to Israel’s use of administrative detention, a legislation which allows for indefinite imprisonment without being charged with a crime or presented with evidence.
Administrative detention is a legacy from the British, which controlled Mandatory Palestine in the early part of the 20th century. When Israel declared statehood in 1948, it adopted Britain’s “emergency” laws, which included administrative detention and which remain on the statute books to this day.
International law allows for the use of administrative detention in rare circumstances within extremely restricted parameters. Israel’s use of administrative detention clearly violates the Fourth Geneva Convention in a manner that is appalling.
Of the more than 700,000 Palestinians that have been in jail since 1967, tens of thousands of those have been detained under administrative detention, including hundreds of children under the age of 16. This is in addition to the Palestinian citizens of Israel that endured administrative detention from 1948 to 1966 during military rule inside Israel.
Israel’s administrative detention legislation applies in the occupied West Bank and inside Israel, and has been held up by the Israeli high court.
Administrative detention does not allow detainees to defend themselves or even see any of the dubious secret evidence, absolves the military “prosecutor” (just a military officer) from burden of proof, prevents the military “judge” (just another military officer with some legal background) from writing a reasoned decision.
As reported in the book Threat: Political Prisoners in Israel, the military “judge” almost always rubber-stamps the military “prosecutor’s” recommendation, by declaring that “the security of the region and of the public necessitate the detention.”
Same excuses used in South Africa
The apartheid regime in South Africa similarly enacted various laws that imposed indefinite detention without trial in a manner clearly contravening international law. Using the pretext of pre-emptive security, the apartheid regime administratively detained tens of thousands of non-whites, including 2,000 children under 16 years of age, in its efforts to crush the resistance to its repressive policies.
Aside from the physical torture that was prevalent during detention in the apartheid regime’s prisons, there was a form of torture intrinsic in administrative detention. Prisoners normally expect to be free on a scheduled release date, yet having an additional six months of detention imposed on them when that date comes around leads to a cycle of hope, anxiety and despair.
Tamar Pelleg-Sryck, a lawyer who has been representing administrative detainees in Israel since 1988, said, “I never met a single detainee that was cured of this cyclical hope. Nor do I know a single woman that abandoned her expectations that her detained husband would be released by the end of the term.”
There are many accounts of this exact practice happening in apartheid South Africa and in Israel. An eerie example can be viewed in this excerpt from the soon-to-be-released documentary film, Roadmap to Apartheid, directed by myself and Ana Nogueira, where Ziad Abbas, a Palestinian activist, tells the story of this practice in Israel, and then Ralph Nzamo, an African activist, tells the same story almost verbatim in an interview from 25 years ago.
The use of administrative detention is just one of many similarities between apartheid South Africa and apartheid Israel. The apartheid analogy affords important historical lessons that can be implemented to help bring justice to Palestinians, especially in the context of resistance to such policies.
It must be remembered though, that apartheid is not just an analogy, it is a crime. The crime of apartheid was codified into international law and defined by the UN with the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, and applies to all countries.
Administrative detention, as practiced by Israel, is one of the many acts defined in the crime of apartheid.
The agonizing and life-threatening hunger strikes of Hana al-Shalabi and Khader Adnan embody a form of nonviolent resistance of which no other is available to political prisoners. It is a form of resistance with a deep history in Palestine as well as in South Africa.
Since 1967, there have been dozens of major hunger strikes that engulfed most prisons in Israel, in which more than a few prisoners starved themselves to death. Some strikes spread across multiple prisons and included thousands of prisoners fasting in unison, such as the Junaid Prison strike in 1987 that is considered to have been one of the contributing factors to the eruption of the first intifada.
This form of detainee resistance in South Africa started out as short, sporadic hunger strikes until the great hunger strike wave of 1989 that began with 20 detainees, and eventually saw 53 hunger strikes involving 1,500 detainees protesting endless detention without trial. The South African government was forced to release 500 of those detainees.
Hunger strikers in South Africa were diagnosed by doctors to be in conditions with the same risks as long term strikers such as Hana al-Shalabi and Khader Adnan were, namely imminent risk of permanent organ damage, coma and death.
The entire decade of the 1980s in South Africa was a wildfire of massive, widespread resistance and unrest — South Africa’s intifada of sorts. The incredible wave of hunger strikes was not only successful in securing the release of a significant number of detainees held without trial, but were, along with the storm of solidarity protests around them, instrumental in ushering in the final, organized wave of popular resistance known as the Defiance Campaign of 1989.
Political activity escalated, and laws prohibiting political campaigns, protests, boycotts and strikes were widely ignored. The internal resistance came to a boiling point across the country. During the very beginning of the hunger strike, the government’s response was to dismiss demands and refuse “to be blackmailed.” One year later, the government announced the unbanning of the African National Congress, and four years after that came the first democratic elections in South Africa — and the formal end of apartheid.
Actions to end apartheid
It is crucial to understand that this incredible wave of widespread, organized internal resistance — that was a culmination of many decades of resistance — was in itself not enough to bring the white government to a point of conceding to change. The timing of this latest Defiance Campaign coincided with the incredible successes of the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in which South Africa found itself with a bankrupt economy, a dissatisfied white citizenry furious or unable to understand why their sports teams couldn’t participate in the Olympic Games, and almost complete isolation in the international arena, especially after the end of the Cold War.
It is also crucial to understand that the South African call for the international BDS movement — also a many decades-long campaign — and its amazing successes, could not have ended apartheid by itself. It was this combination of the country being nearly ungovernable due to the internal resistance, and the simultaneous international pressure, that forced the apartheid government to cede power.
The rapidly-growing international BDS movement initiated by Palestinians only seven short years ago has gained much ground and has hit similar milestones that the South African BDS movement took decades to reach. It offers much hope. But, as in South Africa’s case, BDS alone is most likely not going to be enough to bring justice to Palestinians.
Currently in Palestine, the hunger strikers are few, and a massive wave of popular, widespread resistance in the manner of the first intifada or the Defiance Campaign is seemingly far away for now. But a look at the historical role of the hunger strikes that began with twenty detainees protesting endless detention without trial in South Africa is illuminating to the importance of supporting detainees like Hana al-Shalabi and Khader Adnan.
Eron Davidson is an Israeli-born activist and the director, along with Ana Nogueira, of the soon to be released documentary Roadmap to Apartheid.
Editor’s note: In the paragraph about great hunger strike wave of 1989 in South Africa, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated, “The Israeli government was forced to release 500 of those detainees.” The word “Israeli” was inserted due to an editing error. It was the South African government that released those detainees. The article has been corrected to reflect this.
Sign-up for news, campaign updates, action alerts and fundraisers from the BDS movement.