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Yehuda Litani: In The Mirror Of History

[The Palestinian prisoners' hunger strike seems to have already dropped out of the headlines. But it is early days yet and as Israeli journalist Yehuda Litani points out below, the outcomes of such strikes are not easily predictable.

There are considerable similarities between the pictures in Northern Ireland and in Israel. When Israel's Minster for Internal Security said "For all I care, they can starve to death!" he was echoing Margaret Thatcher's: "A crime is a crime is a crime."

Of course the proportion of those arrested may be different. Israel describes its prisoners as murderers, but with approximately a thousand people having been killed by Palestinians, 7,500 prisoners cannot all be guilty of murder. In fact many have not been accused of any crime, let alone found guilty of one.

This news Service would continue to keep watch on the situation with the strike by the people regarded by many, not only Palestinians, as prisoners of war. - Sol Salbe]

In The Mirror Of History

The British government didn't exactly defeat the Irish hunger strikers. The process could very well be repeated in our case.
By Yehuda Litani
[Translated by Sol Salbe from Ynet the website associated with Yediot Acharonot. (14.20, 19 August 2004)
Hebrew original,7340,L-2965844,00.html

Back in 2001, I was fortunate enough to be present at the 20th anniversary commemorations by Northern Ireland Catholics of the Irish republican hunger strike. That strike cost the lives of ten of their comrades. Posters of the Ten, who became a symbol of the Catholic struggle against the British, were on display all over Ulster. Dozens of memorial services were held that month at their grave sites. The most famous of the strikers, Bobby Sands, who passed away on 5 May 1981 after 66 days, became a legend.

Sands initiated this strike - one that changed the face of the struggle against the British and the Protestant paramilitaries - in defiance of the opinion of his commanders in the IRA. Officially it ended in failure. Family pressure forced the remaining six hunger strikers to give up. The British did not give in on a single demand. (At any rate, they refused to accept the strikers' main demand for a change in status from ordinary criminal prisoners to political prisoners with the associated additional rights.)

But three days later, James Prior, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, announced a series of concessions to the Catholic prisoners, the most important of which was the right to wear their ordinary clothes instead of prison garb. Actually he had already hinted at his willingness to compromise in earlier discussions with representatives of the Catholic Church. This was a factor which contributed to the IRA's agreements to call off the strike. In the event there was a significant improvement in the prisoners' conditions.

The hunger strike at the Maze prison [Long Kesh in the nationalist parlance - translator] was accompanied by serious acts of violence by Irish nationalists. A total of 66 people were killed, including 30 members of the security forces, mainly wardens. A wave of sympathy for the Irish rebels swept the world. It included mass solidarity rallies in western capitals. These in turn were accompanied by attacks on British institutions such as the torching of the British embassy in Dublin. At the same time Bobby Sands was elected in a by-election to represent Sinn Fein in the seat of Fermanagh/South Tyrone.

At the beginning of the hunger strike Sinn Fein was verging on the irrelevant. But by the end of the strike it had taken off to the point of threatening to eclipse the then main Catholic party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which was opposed to the resistance movements' violence. At subsequent Northern Ireland elections the number of Sinn Fein representatives elected kept increasing. Today it is the largest and most important Catholic party. Its senior representatives, Jerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, senior ministers in the suspended Northern Ireland government, are both former prisoners.

At the beginning of the Maze Prison hunger strike the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, convinced that she would be able to break the strike, displayed inordinate callousness at the suffering of the strikers. For this, she was rewarded with praise by the right-wing press. But in a historical perspective, the majority of gains were obtained by the strikers who initiated their campaign in isolation and in defiance of the majority Irish Catholic opinion.

In these early days of the hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, it's hard to predict the eventual outcome. The Israeli government could do worse than study the development of the Maze prison hunger strike. The story of a clever and determined move by the British that turned out to be a stepping stone for the resistance fighters could well be repeated in our case.


[The independent Middle East News Service concentrates on providing alternative information chiefly from Israeli sources. It is generously sponsored by the Australian Jewish Democratic Society. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the AJDS. These are expressed in its own statements]

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