Palestinian-Arab Hisham Abu Hawash is currently the most famous prisoner under Israeli administrative detention. He has been on a hunger strike since Aug. 17, 2021, and under detention since October 2020. He will likely die soon. Why is he striking and why is Israel letting him die?
An Internet search results in a torrent of articles about his protest against the practice of administrative arrest in Israel and speculation on his impending demise. Some of the material is contradictory and confusing. I have sorted through multiple sources to provide the most accurate information I could find.
Many countries use administrative detention as a counter-terrorism measure or as a means to hold illegal immigrants until deciding what to do with them. In the case of terrorism, it is a complicated issue since the individual is being held for something he or she might potentially be planning to do in the future. This stands in contrast to criminal prosecution and imprisonment for acts the person committed in the past and for which there is sufficient evidence to determine guilt.
The public does not have access to documents upon which the military establishment bases its arrest and initial detention of up to six months, and upon which it bases requests for extending the detention, sometimes for years. We have to take their word for it that the arrest and continued imprisonment are justified. Israeli intelligence has allegedly foiled a great number of terrorist attacks before they could be carried out. Perhaps administrative detention, then, is part of a strategy that has proven successful.
What do we know about Abu Hawash?
There is not much information about the man and his background. From an English translation of an article published in the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), we know he is 40-years-old and from the Palestinian town of Dura, near Hebron in Judea and Samaria (also known as the West Bank). The Palestinian Chronicle informs us that he has five children. Haaretz tells us he was in prison for four and a half years for participation in Islamic Jihad terrorist activity (in 2003, according to SANA) and under administrative detention in 2008 and 2012.
This revolving door phenomenon, whereby he was repeatedly arrested and released, raises the question about the effectiveness of administrative arrest to prevent him from planning terror attacks. However, since he apparently did not personally carry out an attack nor do we know if he is implicated in attacks that were carried out by others it may, in fact, serve as a deterrence.
There are those who argue that administrative detention is a violation of human rights since there is no transparency. However, others argue that such consternation and hand wringing is preferable to the funerals and long hospitalizations and rehabilitation of victims of terrorism. Arnold and Frimet Roth, for example, parents of the Sbarro bombing victim Malki Roth, would surely have preferred to have had the opportunity to engage in lively debate on the relative human rights of suspected potential terrorists versus the rights of their potential victims rather than visiting their daughter’s grave. It is an ethical issue that a country still at war perhaps does not have the luxury of fully considering.
Can Israel be accused of causing Hawash’s death?
Israel does not generally let hunger striking prisoners starve themselves to death. The consequences for the country can be severe, and it is impossible to predict whether or not the Islamic Jihad will carry out its threat of retaliation when he dies as a result of what they refer to as an assassination. The Times of Israel claims that, in most cases, prisoners either end their hunger strike after acquiring an earlier release date or after having been promised that their detention orders will not be renewed.
Khayed Al-Fosfus, one of the prisoners who protested at the same time as Abu Hawash, ended his hunger strike when his release date was set for Dec. 6 without impending renewal of the detention order and Ayad al-Harimi ended his strike when he was promised release when his detention order expires in March 2022 as has Miqdad al-Qawasmi, who is to be released in February. Similar deals were reached with Alaa al Araj and more. They expressed pride at their supposed victory over the State of Israel. All of these prisoners have histories of repeated arrests and releases, which seems to suggest that they will find themselves recaptured and subjected to further administrative detentions unless they decide to develop careers other than terrorism. Conducting themselves in a way that opens them up to administrative arrest is a choice they have made. Terrorists, in fact, have been known to hang up their weapons and pursue normal life.
There is apparently no such deal on the horizon for Hisham Abu Hawash. Haaretz reports that “Abu Hawash doesn’t want to die,” but when Israel offered to freeze his detention order Hawash still refused to eat and rejected medical attention — he wants either full cancellation of his detention or death. Haaretz suggests that “refusal to eat is the only means at his disposal to oppose what he sees as the arbitrary deprivation of his freedom.” It is possible this is only an excuse for what he really wants. Refusing a negotiated end to his hunger strike, willing to accept only absolute capitulation on the part of Israel, means that he will die a shaheed (martyr), that he is willing to die for “the Palestinian cause.” And in this case, humiliation of Israel, as demonstrated by declarations of victory over Israel when prisoners received early release from detention, may be sufficient for Abu Hawash and his supporters to view this a worthy cause to die for.
In 2015, then Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan suggested that “hunger strikes were ‘a new type of suicide terrorist attack’ against Israel.” And it is possible that humiliation of Israel whether by Israel capitulating to prisoner demands or by the death of a hunger striking prisoner may signal for them that Israel can be defeated.
When serving as minister of immigration, Zeev Elkin expressed support for the law allowing force-feeding political prisoners in Israel, saying, “The State of Israel can’t allow itself to be held hostage to hunger strikes by prisoners because today it’s one prisoner and tomorrow it will be others. . . Today it’s a prisoner in administrative detention and tomorrow it will be someone who was sentenced to jail after a fair trial.”
In spite of the law having been passed in 2015, it appears that the possibility of force-feeding Abu Hawash was either not considered or not approved. Hawash’s condition has by now deteriorated to a perhaps irreversible state. Had Israel force fed him before reaching this point, the Palestinian Authority and anti-Israel activists would have been up in arms at what they regard as a violation of human dignity and a form of torture.
But if Hawash dies by starvation, Israel will be accused of murder. Senior P.A. official Hussein al-Sheikh tweeted and was quoted in The Times of Israel as declaring, “We hold the Israeli government entirely responsible,” in the event of Abu Hawash’s death. This is likely representative of the general attitude of P.A. authorities in Judea and Samaria and Gaza, and according to a number of articles on the topic, on the part of a large portion of the P.A. civilian population.
Regardless of what Israel does, the criticism is deafening.
Are there alternatives?
As in many situations arising as Israel protects her population from hostile enemies seeking her destruction, the country finds itself needing to choose between conflicting ethical stances. Should administrative detention be abolished, inventing a creative solution for the void it leaves? Or should the criteria for arresting someone and renewing the detention order be made more transparent? Perhaps the circle of those who are privy to the relevant documentation can be widened or perhaps the criteria and principles behind the decision can be made clearer to the public without revealing certain details that would impede the military and intelligence professionals from preventing future terrorist acts.
Is it possible to anticipate who may begin a hunger strike and predict when that might happen and invent imaginative ways to respond as soon as the plot germinates? This would allow for preemptive action before prisoner strikers become social media celebrities.
Given that Hisham Abu Hawash was not offered release from his current detention in order to get him to start eating — as were other hunger strikers — it raises the question about the level of risk this man presents to the citizens of Israel. Sharing with the Israeli public why he is so dangerous would help Israelis make sense of it and defend the lack of capitulation when they engage with the social media storm that is likely to erupt upon his death.
Sheri Oz is a retired family and trauma therapist living in Israel for more than 45 years.