Hisham Abu Hawash has refused food for 140 days in one of the longest hunger strikes ever held by a Palestinian prisoner.

Palestinian prisoner Hisham Abu Hawash has been on hunger strike for 140 days, one of the longest prison hunger strikes ever held by a Palestinian, over his detention without trial.

Human rights groups and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have expressed concern over Abu Hawash’s health condition, which has reportedly deteriorated in the past three days. The ICRC said he was “in critical condition requiring expert clinical monitoring” and called on efforts to be made “to find a solution to avoid irreversible health consequences and possible tragic loss of life.” Physicians for Human Rights Israel warned on Sunday that Abu Hawash is in “imminent danger of death due to potassium deficiency and arrhythmia.” 

Palestinian civil society, the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian members of the Israeli Knesset have called for Abu Hawash’s release. Palestinians took to the streets in support of that demand late last week in West Bank cities including Ramallah. In Umm al Fahem, a town in central Israel predominantly inhabited by Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, four people were arrested as a protest was violently quashed by police.

Abu Hawash, a 40-year-old father of five from the southern West Bank town of Dura, near Hebron, has been in administrative detention in Israeli jails since October 2020. Such detentions are ordered by military courts and they can last for months without the charges being disclosed.

He is currently being held at Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva, where he was recently transferred from Israel’s Ramle prison. According to Israeli daily Haaretz, his detention order was suspended last week, but Abu Hawash decided to carry on with the strike until it is revoked entirely.

Why do Palestinian prisoners resort to hunger strikes?

Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails have often resorted to hunger strikes to draw attention to their cases, and are seen as national heroes by much of Palestinian society. The longest fast was held by Samer Issawi, who refused food for 266 days, surviving only on intravenous vitamins and minerals from August 2012 to April 2013. Issawi was protesting his re-arrest following his release as part of a prisoner swap deal to free kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. He had been originally sentenced to 26 years for his involvement in shooting attacks during the second Intifada in 2002.

According to prisoners’ rights group Addameer, around 20 percent of Palestinians have been detained or imprisoned at least once under Israeli military orders since Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, including 10,000 women. For the male population, the number goes up to 40 percent. 8,000 children have been arrested since 2,000.

What is administrative detention?

Administrative detention is a system under which Israeli military courts can order the detention of a suspect based on undisclosed evidence, without trial or charge. Administrative detention orders are renewed every six months for an indefinite period of time.

Israel says it uses administrative detention when it fears an immediate security risk, but rights groups have demanded a halt to the controversial practice, arguing it has been a tool to suppress Palestinian civil society - used against lawyers, students, and human rights activists among others. Since 2014, there have been about 500 Palestinians held in administrative detention at any given time. According to the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society, 1,595 detention orders were issued to Palestinians in the occupied territories in 2021.

Administrative detainees are unable to challenge the charges against them, which even they and their lawyers are not allowed to see.

 What could happen next?

The danger of Abu Hawash’s sudden death due to organ failure is very real at this stage, as pointed out by medical experts in the last few days. IRA leader Bobby Sands died after a 66-day hunger strike that changed the course of conflict in Northern Ireland in 1981.

Pressure is mounting on the Palestinian Authority to intervene. Prisoners usually end their strikes after striking deals with the Israeli authorities involving either their release or assurances their open-ended detention will come to an end. However, former hunger strikers often suffer permanent health damages after they recover. 

It comes amid fears of an escalation of violence in the occupied territories after Israel launched raids on Gaza over the weekend, reportedly after two rockets were fired from the enclave. There were no casualties on either side.