Maher al-Akhras is hardly able to walk a year after being freed from an Israeli jail after a 103-day hunger strike. He can’t enjoy social situations or return to work on his ancestral farm in the occupied West Bank due to frequent spells of dizziness and sensitivity to noise.
He is regarded as a Palestinian hero at home, as one of a select handful of hunger strikers who have been released from Israeli imprisonment. But, as a result of the lengthy hunger strike’s emotional and physical effects, he and thousands like him are unable to resume regular lives and are depending on long-term medical care.
“My equilibrium has been lost,” al-Akhras stated. “I’m not allowed to wander among the cows, hold them, or milk them.”
Hunger strikes have long been used by Palestinian prisoners to compel Israel to improve their detention conditions or obtain their release after being imprisoned without trial for months or years under a program known as administrative detention.
Approximately 4,600 Palestinians are now detained in Israel, including hardened terrorists who have carried out fatal assaults as well as others captured during rallies or for hurling stones. Approximately 450 Palestinians are being imprisoned in administrative detention, and at least 11 have staged extended hunger strikes to obtain early release in the previous two years.
Israel claims administrative detention is necessary to prevent attacks or to keep dangerous people locked up without exposing sensitive intelligence sources. Al-Akhras has been prosecuted and convicted twice in military courts for his connection with the Islamic Jihad militant group, which is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and Western countries.
Palestinians and human rights organizations claim that administrative detention denies inmates their right to due process, allowing them to be kept indefinitely without hearing the evidence against them or even facing a military trial. Even in areas governed by the Palestinian Authority, the 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank remain subject to Israeli military authority.
Long hunger strikes attract international attention and incite protests in the occupied territories, increasing pressure on Israel to satisfy the requests of the detainees. The death in jail of a hunger striker would almost certainly lead to more unrest and protests among Palestinians.
“Hunger strikes are especially successful in the case of administrative detainees since they are held outside of the legal system,” said Jessica Montell, head of HaMoked, an Israeli human rights organization.
Hunger strikers are brought to Israeli hospitals under restraint as their health deteriorates. They drink water, and doctors advise them to take vitamins, but some, such as al-Akhras, reject. Despite the fact that no Palestinians in Israeli captivity have died as a consequence of hunger strikes, physicians warn that long-term vitamin shortage can lead to severe brain damage.
“A person with severe vitamin B deficiency might develop persistent neurological disorders such as vertigo, dizziness, slow thinking, and significant memory problems,” said Dr. Bettina Birmanns, a neurologist and director of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. Long durations of hunger will force the body to consume proteins from the bones and heart, she explained.
Al-Akhras claims he has regained all of the weight he lost after being released from administrative detention a year ago, but he still struggles to read and walk in a straight line.
In 2019, Ahmed Ghannam, a former auto trader from the southern West Bank, went on an almost 100-day hunger strike to protest his fourth administrative imprisonment. He has been jailed twice before for his ties to the Islamic terrorist organisation Hamas. He was diagnosed with weakening heart muscle and the early stages of type 2 diabetes after his release.
According to critics, Israel takes care not to turn the hunger strikers into martyrs by either giving in to their demands after they are debilitated or employing emergency measures like as force-feeding. Force-feeding mentally sound individuals is often seen as a breach of patient autonomy, equivalent to torture, by medical experts.
Several Palestinian hunger strikers died after being force-fed by Israeli authorities in the 1970s and 1980s, leading to the practice being prohibited. However, against the protests of the medical community, an Israeli law established in 2015 permits a court to authorise force-feeding in certain cases. It’s unknown whether or not the law has ever been used.
Force-feeding has never been utilized on any hunger strikers who have been moved to Israel’s Kaplan hospital, according to Shany Shapiro, a spokesman for the hospital. Instead, alternative life-saving therapies, such as infusions, are favored.
“There is an ethical commission that considers the needs of the prisoner before any type of assistance is conducted,” she explained.
Former inmates claim that operatives from Israel’s internal security organization, the Shin Bet, entered their hospital rooms and pressured them to cease their hunger strikes before they reached that point. Agents allegedly enticed Ghannam and al-Akhras with food and threatened them with home demolitions or travel restrictions for family members, according to Ghannam and al-Akhras.
A request for comment from the Shin Bet was not returned.
Marathon hunger strikers return home to a hero’s welcome, where they are viewed as symbols of tenacity despite a 54-year occupation with no end in sight. Kayed Fasfous, who led a five-man hunger strike and was freed last month, has given a series of television interviews since then.
Al-Akhras became a local celebrity as well. “On the street, people stop me and ask for photographs,” he remarked.
The celebrity, on the other hand, fades fast for most hunger strikers, but the health implications endure.
Anani Sarahneh, a representative for the Palestinian Prisoners Club, which represents past and current detainees, said the organization is helping roughly 60 former hunger strikers who are suffering from various psychological and physiological problems.
Ghannam, who was freed in 2019, said he has struggled to find consistent work in order to support his wife and two young boys while still paying off rising medical costs.
“I don’t regret my decision,” he stated, “but I do regret the additional issues it has brought.”