Palestine is not the North of Ireland. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is the different relationship between the political prisoners and their movements – whereas in the North of Ireland the prisoners remained very important during the struggle and during the peace process, here the prisoners’ role in the struggle is weakened both by both Palestinian and Israeli actions, and their role in political negotiations is small not only because of Israeli repression and isolation but also because of political interests of Palestinian politicians who benefit from the status quo.
In the North of Ireland being in prison did not mean having no communication with the leadership of whatever paramilitary group you might belong to. This was the early era of counter-terrorism, where pretty much anything could be smuggled in, and messages could be transported between the prisoners and the leadership. In modern israeli jails where visits are easily restricted and repression extreme it is much more difficult to send messages. Even sending messages from one part of the prison to another part can be extremely difficult, and sometimes not accomplished without the creation of small holes between cells which must be kept hidden, etc…
However, the proportionally small role of Palestinian political prisoners can not be attributed simply to Israeli actions. The Oslo process has created a climate where Palestinian political leaders benefit from the fake peace, benefit from the ongoing colonization of Arab lands, and benefit from the ever present prospect and delay of negotiations with Israel. The same movements whose leadership outside benefits from the impasse, however, have prisoners in the jail who are highly motivated to continue the struggle. Therefore, even if messages could be easily transported, the current Palestinian political leadership has an interest in keeping political focus off of the prisoners, for the sake of maintaining the current period of quiet and peacefulness.
Because of Oslo and the dismantling of al-Assifa, the Palestinian militant forces are not organized in traditional brigades and companies, but in small cells symbolically dedicated to individual martyrs. Unlike the Irish Republican militants, the adoption of a cellular military structure did not retain a strong hierarchical chain of command where the main leadership had major control over attacks (although certain Irish Republican militant actions such as the Canary Wharf bombing suggest that the military leadership was not completely under the control of Sinn Fein’s political leadership). The independence of the martyr’s brigades actions during the 2nd intifada, the lack of direct control of Fatah’s political leadership over the war means that Abu Mazen is continually concerned over maintaining control of the militants to maintain peace. This is an old concern of Abu Mazen – back in 2003 he proposed the dismantling of Fatah’s militias, a plan that was rejected by Arafat at the time. Abbas is currently working to put all of Palestine’s armed forces under control of the Palestine National Security Forces. The PA claimed to have finished this process 4 years ago, but it was announced this may that the (apprently still existing) militias are to be united under the PASF. This process of uniting has also included militant groups not organized under the name al-aqsa martyr’s, such as the “Palestinian Armed Struggle” group which controls the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon and various other generic Fatah militias at other Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. The PA is also engaging in broad weapons crackdowns, purportedly to take weapons from criminals, but in fact to weaken the camps and take weapons from those who might use them to resist against the occupation.
This situation of Abu Mazen’s wide ranging attempt to unify Fatah’s militants, in which you will find many leaders, under his single leadership, is the context in which he does not need interference from Palestinian leaders in the jails. And this is perhaps the situation in which we should interpret the current hunger strikes – what is, after all, the politics of the hunger strikers – what are they working to achieve by their sacrifice? The individual hunger strikers campaign, or at least settle, for their own release, usually on humanitarian grounds or as an individual political protest against their administrative detention. The individual hunger strikes in Palestine have not as they did in Northern Ireland been organized or committed to the end towards the broader National cause. The mass hunger strikes, on the other hand, have been oriented towards goals that make sense in the context of the pursuit of the liberation of Palestine, such as the end of the use of administrative detention which would hamper Israel’s repression of militancy by taking away a tool they use to jail potentially dangerous Palestinians against whom they have no evidence.
However, the mass hunger strike was ended long before the hunger strikers lives were in danger. The 28 day strike did achieve some goals of improvements in the conditions of the jails, but they did not achieve political goals that advance the movement – in fact, part of the deal involved a promise that Palestinians in the jails would stop any military organizational activity, only those who signed agreements ”not to engage in actions contravening security inside the jails” would have their conditions eased. The end of the strike was hailed as a political victory for Hamas and for the PA, both which interpreted according to their public rhetoric and ideology. Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum declared “This is a first step toward liberation and victory,” and Mark Regev, spokesperson for Israel said ”It is our hope that this gesture by Israel will serve to build confidence between [Israel and the PA] and to further peace”.
While the fact that Palestinian prisoners do not play an organized and central role in the conflict has many causes and serves many interests, I think one reason dominates over all the others. While there are about 4500 Palestinian prisoners at any given time, they are distributed over more than a dozen different prisons. Organizing common actions across such a distributed community must be terribly difficult, especially if Israel becomes aware and shuts down any easy lines of communication. And even with communication, physical distance puts emotional and intellectual distance between people – it’s just harder to feel solidarity with someone who’s far away than someone sitting across from you.
The prisoners in Palestine have shown incredible bravery and determination since the beginning of the latest round of hunger strikes, especially since Khader Adnan set an example for all Palestinians by gaining his freedom after demonstrating to Israel his willingness to sacrifice himself for the cause. At present the complex of forces is such that their strength is being used by the pro-statehood institutions of Fatah and Hamas, they are part of the international Palestinian media advocacy working to tarnish Israel’s reputation and improve world perception of the Palestinians. However, if this place does return to conflict, you can be sure that the prisoners will play a crucial role by resisting inside the prisoners while their comrades resist outside.