Photo: Sara Flounders

Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network participated in a forum in New York City organized by the International League of People’s Struggles, the United National Antiwar Coalition and the International Action Center on Tuesday, 6 June.

Joe Catron of Samidoun spoke at the Solidarity Forum, dedicated to the discussion of rebuilding anti-war and anti-imperialist organizing in the United States, with a presentation on Palestinian political prisoners, the recent hunger Strike for Freedom and Dignity and the ongoing Palestinian struggle for liberation as well as solidarity actions and campaigns, such as the BDS campaign to #StopHP for its involvement in contracting with and profiteering from Israeli imprisonment, occupation, colonialism and apartheid.

Participants discussed the upcoming UNAC national conference in Virginia and the ILPS “Solidarity and Fightback: Building Resistance to US-led War, Militarism and Neofascism” conference in Toronto, as well as popular movements and struggles in Venezuela, Korea and the Philippines, with speakers involved in each movement and solidarity organizing providing a report and analysis.

Joe Catron’s talk at the forum is below, in full:

I’d like to start by honoring the deaths of Saba Abid, Mutaz Bani Shamsa, and Raed Ahmad Radayda. They were the three young Palestinian men, between 15 and 23 years old, gunned down by Israeli soldiers and a settler while protesting in support of Palestinian political prisoners’ Strike of Freedom and Dignity. When we discuss the strike and its gains, their sacrifices should be foremost in our minds.

And the gains for which they fought and died are worth celebrating. Through Palestinian prisoners’ 40 days on hunger strike, they won improvements to their education, family visits, food, health care, recreational facilities, telephone access, transportation and general conditions.

Many of these changes will drastically improve the lives of prisoners. More than 140 children who had been denied family visits will be able to see their imprisoned parents. Prisoners being transported between courts and prisons will get meals and bathroom breaks. And cooling and ventilation systems will make the coming summer months more tolerable for thousands in Israel’s crowded prison blocks.

The biggest concession may have been won not from Israel, but the International Committee of the Red Cross. In May 2016, the ICRC, which coordinates family visits to Palestinian prisoners, announced drastic cuts to the program, slashing visits to most prisoners by half, to one per month. After over a year of protests inside and outside the prisons, including the strike, the ICRC agreed to restore visits to their earlier level.

The mere fact that prisoners were forced to launch a hunger strike targeting a supposedly neutral body mandated to protect their rights is obscene. And the ICRC’s intransigence in continuing to deny prisoners a right as basic as regular family visits until the strike had lasted for over a month should make clear to all of us where it stands in the struggle between Palestinians and the Israeli occupation.

But the strike’s most lasting impact may lie not in the concessions it won from the occupation and its accomplices, but rather its role as a focus for continued Palestinian resistance.

On April 17, Palestinian Prisoners’ Day and the day the strike began, Marwan Barghouti, an imprisoned Palestinian parliamentarian, wrote in the New York Times, “Israel’s prisons have become the cradle of a lasting movement for Palestinian self-determination. This new hunger strike will demonstrate once more that the prisoners’ movement is the compass that guides our struggle, the struggle for Freedom and Dignity, the name we have chosen for this new step in our long walk to freedom.”

At its end, Ahmad Sa’adat, the imprisoned general secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and, like Barghouti, a leader of the strike, repeated the metaphor of the compass.

On May 28, he wrote, “This victory has important implications: first, to reaffirm the fact that rights can only be taken and never begged for, and that the resistance was the main lever for all of the achievements of the Palestinian people in the successive eras of the revolution. Second, that the different factions of the prisoners’ movement and the atmosphere of division did not prevent the unity of action of all of the national and Islamic factions on the fields of confrontation, as long as the compass of struggle remained directed at the primary contradiction with the occupation. The third significant point is that the confrontation does not end with the strike; instead, it must continue in order to strengthen the achievements of the strike, expand them and build on them. This is critical to rebuild and unify the body of the Palestinian prisoners’ movement and expand its role to exit the situation of fragmentation and division and instead present a living model to our people to bring forward sincere efforts to advance the Palestinian cause from this current crisis and the framework of division.”

The challenge he describes the strike as posing to the political division and social fragmentation of the Palestinian people and their national movement, cultivated by Israel and its supporters over decades, comes at a time when Israeli and allied forces seek to further strengthen these strategic advantages for the occupation.

In 1969, the Strategy for the Liberation of Palestine, the foundational text of contemporary Palestinian leftism, analyzed the enemies facing the Palestinian people.

It concluded that these enemies included not only Israel itself, but also the world Zionist movement, world imperialism led by the United States, and Arab reaction represented by feudalism and capitalism.

Today, these are the very forces we see working together to foment chaos and bloodshed across the Arab world, particularly in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

Together, they funnel arms and other material support to the most reactionary and sectarian forces while both politically isolating and militarily bombarding any supporters of Palestinians and other liberation movements.

Inside Palestine, they work hand-in-hand to crush any semblance of resistance by Palestinians while reinforcing divisions among Palestinian factions, and the limited self-rule projects in Ramallah and Gaza.

While I certainly don’t have time to analyze it extensively, here I should mention the current diplomatic offensive against Qatar by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Maldives, Egypt, and Bahrain, plus the nominal, Western-backed governments controlling portions of Yemen and Libya.

Over the past two days, each has severed its diplomatic ties with Qatar, ordered the expulsion of Qatari citizens, and for Qatar’s neighbors in the Persian Gulf, imposed closures on it by land, air and sea.

Qatar is hardly a friend of either the Palestinian struggle or religious pluralism.

But statements by leaders of the states aligned against it make clear that their key motives include its insufficient sectarianism, in terms of its cooperative development of the world’s biggest natural gas field, which it shares with Iran, and its unwillingness to completely crush Palestinian resistance.

Coming fresh on the heels of Donald Trump’s Riyadh summit, which aimed to create what White House officials have called an “Arab NATO,” targeting Iran and quietly including Israel, the US role is obvious.

Similarly, as the Trump administration demands unprecedented concessions from the Palestinian Authority, including an end to even token support for Palestinians targeted by Israel for their resistance, its closest Arab allies, led by the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, are openly scheming to impose new, Israel-friendly leadership in Gaza and Ramallah.

But these attempts face the Dignity Strike, and the broad Palestinian mobilization in support of it, which show the leadership that the unites the Palestinian people are inside Israeli prisons, united in their determination to resist encroachments on Palestinian land and freedom.

And in a year filled with historic anniversaries for Palestine – a decade after Israel’s closure of the Gaza Strip, 50 years since its military seizure of the Strip and the West Bank, as well as Syria’s Golan Heights, approaching 70 years of the Nakba, or ethnic cleansing of Palestine, and a century after the United Kingdom’s Balfour Declaration – the strike, and the Palestinian prisoners’ movement overall, are a compass pointing towards further resistance, until liberation and return.

For those of us here tonight, I think our tasks are relatively clear. We must create further space for Palestinian struggle, from the prison blocks to the popular protests to the resistance brigades, by weakening the racist, settler-colonial State of Israel, particularly its key pillars of support – Zionism and imperialism – within the United States.

I’m proud of the work Samidoun and our partner organizations have done to advance the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, helping to drive the world’s biggest security company, G4S, out of Israeli prisons, settlements and checkpoints and building awareness of Hewlett Packard’s complicity in Israel’s political imprisonment and other crimes against Palestinians.

I also think that all of us – not only Samidoun as a small organization, but also much larger solidarity, Palestinian and anti-war movements – need to think critically about what it would mean to seriously target imperialist and Zionist support for Israel, with a clear focus on their flagship project: the $3.8 billion dollars in annual military aid that makes Israel’s crimes possible.

For now, I’ll leave you with a favorite quote from Palestinian prisoner and leader Ameer Makhoul. He wrote it in the aftermath of a hunger strike through which Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Khader Adnan won his freedom in 2012. I think his words are no less relevant today:

“This battle highlighted the bankruptcy of the discourse of ‘moderation’ which Israel and the US have foisted on the official Palestinian leadership. This moderate stance claims that if we Palestinians wish to secure international support, we must adopt a moderate posture. In practice, this means voluntarily accepting the oppressive controls imposed by the globalized terror of the state. ‘Moderation’ here means abandoning the right to resist the occupying state.

“Yet what we have just witnessed is that the world lends support when Palestinians themselves fight back and stand firm, regardless of their political affiliation. The ability to affect and move international public opinion and secure effective wide-scale solidarity was not the outcome of a public relations strategy but of a real struggle on the ground to stand up to the oppressive colonialist machine.