Thaer Halahleh wrote a letter to his wife Shireen from an Israeli jail in February: “My detention has been renewed seven times and they still haven’t charged me. I can’t take it any more.” Then the 34-year-old began a hunger strike, as did Bilal Diab. That was 77 days ago. Both are Palestinians, fathers, whose young daughters are strip searched and terrified when they visit. David Rose, an exceptional investigative journalist and Jewish himself, recently publicised their stories. Eight others have been on the same, silent, self-wasting, wasted protest. Halahleh’s eyes were bleeding, blood instead of tears. He, Diab and others may well be dead by the time you read this. Last Friday, Supreme Court judges in this hubristic democracy turned down an application from civil rights groups to have the men moved to civilian hospitals. They didn’t want, perhaps, their own citizens to witness such stuff. What would that do to the image of the plucky little nation, surrounded by real and imagined threats?
The moralistic Chief Rabbi will not be on “Thought for the Day” expressing sorrow for the treatment of these prisoners. Ardent British Zionists will not be pressed to condemn those responsible for the state barbarism. You certainly won’t get a big TV hit like Homeland, (based on Hatufim, an Israeli TV series that fictionalised the capture by Palestinian militants of the IDF soldier Gilad Shalit) being made about these men. Come on, you cool, edgy TV chaps, how about a film about a handsome Palestinian held by the Israelis till he loses his mind? Do I hear a choral “No”?
Western opinion formers have been indifferent, in some cases knowingly so, about what is happening. No condemnations are heard around our Parliament. They say we must have freedom of speech, but that right is never evoked when it comes to Israel. The BNP and EDL can spread their racist poison freely, but Baroness Jenny Tonge is savaged by Zionists and her own party for saying that nation “is not going to be there forever in its present form”. She has just quit the Lib Dems. If she had uttered the same words about, say, Zimbabwe, she would have been acclaimed.
A large number of enlightened British Jews see the double standards and object to Israel’s intransigence. It must be so hard to do what they do, behave with integrity and empathise with those they are instructed to hate.
The detained Palestinians are embarked on peaceful, Gandhian protest action. They want their families to be able to visit without restrictions, decent medical treatment, not to be put into solitary confinement for years on end, to be taken to court and tried. How is that “terrorism”? With the 1981 IRA hunger strikers, of whom 10 died, even the most anti-Republican British newspapers published pictures and told us what was happening. TV too covered their journeys to the very end.
With these slowly dying inmates and the 6,000 others locked up without due process, there is nothing, nada. I never knew until this week that since 1967, 700,000 Palestinians have been detained. Not all were innocent but nor were all of them guilty. To be a Palestinian, to want equality, rights, freedom and land is not a crime. Except that for hardline Israelis, it is.
Their country is protected from censure partly because of fears that any criticism of its actions is potentially “anti-Semitic”. Some anti-Semites do use Israel as a cover, but then Israel uses that fact to tar and warn all legitimate criticism. Its governments do what they damn-well want and claim perpetual exceptionality. Their darkest deeds are thus left unscrutinised. This time though, it is suddenly dawning on some key people, among them the hapless Middle East saviour Tony Blair, that these “martyrs” could trigger another Intifada. He is urging Israeli officials to “take all measures to prevent a tragic outcome that could have serious implications for stability and security”. Why, he even uttered the words “human rights”. The UN and other bodies have intervened. They will all be rebuffed, so monstrous are the egos of the ultra-right wing leadership. In any case Netanyahu et al can point – and with absolute validity – at Guantanamo Bay and our own prisoners held without trial. They are all in it together.
Blair is right to be fearful. Every time a hunger striker dies, even more inchoately angry young Muslim men will be radicalised and turn murderous. Some are raised in the West filled with rhetoric about freedom, democracy, fairness and justice and then witness the betrayal of Palestinians. That dissonance between principles and reality makes them, perhaps, even more enraged than the Palestinians themselves who have low expectations and few illusions. This is not making excuses for terrorists, it is just a reality check.
I truly want Israel to survive and thrive but it is becoming its own worst enemy. British activist Tom Hurndall, 21, was sheltering a Palestinian child from Israeli bullets in Gaza in 2003, when he was killed. His candid journals have just been published. Read them and mourn the idealistic young man and the loss of all idealism in Israel.