Almost a month has passed since a group of 1,500 Palestinian prisoners, led by Marwan Barghouti, began their hunger strike for better conditions in Israeli jails.
Living on little more than salt, the prisoners have refused to buckle, even though one of the hunger strikers was forced to withdraw due a blood clot, and Barghouti himself was vilified for apparently breaking his fast in a video which went viral last week.
Now, after a month of privation and recrimination, the movement appears to be going international.
In South Africa, around a dozen government ministers and deputy ministers held a 24-strike on Sunday, in sympathy with Barghouti’s demonstrators. In America, supporters have held demonstrations in cities such as Dearborn and Chicago, demanding the freedom of all Palestinian political prisoners and an improvement in the basic Israeli prison conditions.
And, in Manchester, a knot of determined students organised their own strike, keeping it up for a full five days despite being largely ignored by the national press.
The protest was led by a student called Huda Ammori, born in Bradford of Iraqi and Palestinian descent. An undergraduate in her second year, Ammori combines her business, finance and economics course with regular activism on behalf of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, an international movement which demands the imposition of punitive measures on Israel to punish the Jewish state for its perceived failure to treat Palestinians fairly.
Ammori, who now lives in Bolton, told talkRADIO her aim is to end investment by Manchester and other universities in companies such as Caterpillar, which, she claims, enable Israeli oppression (Caterpillar supplies equipment to the Israel Defense Forces). Last month two Manchester students were disciplined for brandishing a ‘Stop Arming Israel’ banner, but Ammori felt bold enough to proceed with her protest regardless.
In the end she put together a band of seven other students, two of them also of Palestinian extraction, to begin the protest on April 27th – a week after Barghouti and his fellow prisoners had begun their strike in Israel.
She told talkRADIO: “We’d been watching what happened with the Palestinian political prisoners for a while, wondering when the international solidarity would begin, and wanted to go on a hunger strike to show our form of solidarity.
“Some of them [the demonstrators] only planned to do one day due to health reasons but the rest of us lasted five days – nothing but water and coffee.”
Ammori says she herself has now dropped out of the hunger strike, but remains involved as a “co-ordinator”. She claims the Manchester demonstration is ongoing and students from other tertiary institutions have joined them. Further afield, a Europe-wide strike began on May 4, involving students from cities such as Italy, Spain and Belgium.
There are now plans for a longer-term hunger strike and Ammori remains a central node in the operation, sharing tips from her own demonstration and putting fellow activists in contact with one another.
Ammori says she hasn’t actively reached out to other universities to demand they join the strike – “we don’t want to encourage students to undertake something so serious” – but she has been inundated with messages of solidarity and interest from sympathists, asking how they can join in.
'The system is biased against them'
Critics might accuse Ammori of taking an overly idealistic and simplistic view of the protest, given that Barghouti is a convicted terrorist who was found guilty of five counts of murder. She insists “we have to bear in mind that these are allegations” [although Barghouti was convicted in a court of law] and suggests “naturally [the system] will be biased against him.”
She continues: “I don’t want to justify every single murder, but the treatment of Palestinian prisoners must comply with international law. Even prisoners have a basic level of protection under international law.
"If we look at it in the large context, we can kind of understand there’s clearly an injustice going on, clear injustice with Palestinians and their human rights.
“We don’t condone terrorism in any form but we must respect people’s basic human rights, prisoners or not.”
Barghouti is a leader of Fatah, the party which rules in the Gaza strip and is widely considered the more moderate of the two main Palestinian political movements. I ask Ammori if she’d be as supportive of Barghouti had he been a member of Hamas, Fatah’s counterpart in the Gaza strip, which is proscribed as a terrorist organisation in several countries and has previously called for the complete annihilation of Israel (Hamas recently unveiled a new policy document, which suggests the group still refuses to recognise Israel but no longer advocates its destruction).
“What has motivated us is the principle of the Palestinian political prisoners’ situation,” Ammori says. “There are 300 children currently in Israeli prisons. Most people will have reservations against Hamas, I do myself as well, but that’s not really a question we need to answer. Children being incarcerated, administrative detention… these basic things need to end.
“If we look back at BDS asks for, what we ask and expect, we only expect a means to a solution, not a solution itself.”
The Israel press claims Mahmoud Abbas, leader of Fatah and of the Palestinian Authority, is ready to sign a deal with Israel. But Ammori says that, even if this is the case, the international community must not relent in its attempts to squeeze Benjamin Netanyahu’s regime.
“Abbas doesn’t represent the whole civil society,” she says,” there’ve been a lot of protests against him. Before negotiations can take place Israel must comply with international law and stop their land grab. They must stop bulldozing Palestinian homes. The ethnic cleansing of Palestinians must end.”
And what about that infamous video, which appears to show Barghouti tucking into some cookies and candy bars?
“First of all, all evidence so far suggests it could be fake,” Ammori says. “There’s been a strong propaganda war waged by Israel for decades. It’s a very easy trick to pull off.
“[And] even if there’s a small chance that the video is real, the man has been on hunger strike since April 17th. Most people will never undergo such extremities.”
Critics might accuse Ammori of shutting her eyes to some rather inconvenient realities in favour of her own partisan view. But her supporters will hail her stoic dedication, and a refusal to bow to what they consider nothing more than Israeli propaganda.
Whatever your view, one has to admire this young student’s resourcefulness. Her demonstration may well have slipped below the radar – but one suspects we might be hearing a lot more of Huda Ammori in the years ahead.