Howard Epstein



Last week, I ruminated on the plight of French Jews pending the possible election of the fascist Marine Le Pen. By the middle of the week, the worry was over. She had revealed herself as manipulative, ruthless and arrogant – and prepare to conspire with the Kremlin with fake news that was supposed to weaken her rival, Macron, but instead rebounded on her. It was in the nature of the beast, and France now has as its president a quantity that is unknown, save that he is unlikely to require or stimulate French Jews to start packing up. This is a reprieve that could last a generation, depending on whether he can avert a fiscal collapse and then face down the more “appealing” Marion Le Pen, niece of the busted flush, Marine. The whole family specialises in fascist leanings and Marion will definitely be a force one day – but that is for the future.

So far as the present is concerned, since April 17 last, some 1,200 Palestinian prisoners, supposedly complaining about their prison conditions, have been on strike. The government of Prime Minister Netanyahu wishes to avoid the death of its prisoners but, inconveniently, Israeli doctors have decided that they are under no duty to seek to preserve human life by “force-feeding” self-starving prisoners. There is a bizarre row over whose is the duty to find a replacement for abstaining doctors, with the Israeli government reportedly proposing to recruit doctors from abroad. (Best of luck with that.)

The prospect of martyrs to the Palestinian cause being created in their dozens is one from which Israel naturally shrinks. It could conceivably led to another Intifada and another downward violent spiral. One question that arises, however, is whether, after President Trump (reportedly) had words with Abu Mazen (the nom-de-guerre of Palestinian Authority President Abbas – still no nom-de-paix in sight), the PA is still prepared to reward its martyrs with eponymous street names (the eligible streets must surely be in short supply by now) and cash bonuses to newly-bereaved families.

The PA may have another image problem, too. Terrorist leader, Marwan Barghouti, has been espied (and filmed) sneaking a quick snack on his incipient death-bed. (Actually, in the WC but who wants to contemplate that? Apart from Barghouti, of course.) His compatriots may  not know about it, may not believe it or may have formed an attachment to the idea of martyrdom.

Insoluble problem? Not when seen in its proper context.

In 1980, seven Irish Republican Army prisoners of the British in Belfast, Northern Ireland, started a hunger strike, with dozens joining them by the strike’s conclusion. In December 1980, three women from Armagh Women’s Prison joined them in their fast. On December 18th, 1980, strike-leader, Brendan Hughes, called off the strike as one of their number, Sean McKenna, grew close to death, believing the British government had conceded on several demands.

When the prisoners realised that their demands were not being met by the British, they began a second hunger strike, starting in March 1981.

When terrorist poster-boy, Bobby Sands, was close to death, the British government’s position was set out with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland stating “If Mr Sands persisted in his wish to commit suicide, that was his choice. The Government would not force medical treatment upon him.” On May 5, Sands died in the prison hospital on the sixty-sixth day of his hunger strike, prompting rioting in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State issued a further statement, saying that Sands had committed suicide “under the instructions of those who felt it useful to their cause that he should die”. Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, too, showed no sympathy for Sands’ death, telling the House of Commons that: “Mr Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims”. The same could be said of Barghouti.

The 1981 strike lasted eight months, with dozens of prisoners striking and the deaths of 10 men. It generated a vast amount of attention at the time and subsequently from the public, journalists, politicians, artists and academics alike. The strikes had an international impact too, from petitions in Denmark, France and the US to a street in Tehran being named after Sands, and a mural in commemoration of the hunger strikers in Cuba.

The British media painted the end of the strike as a win for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Useful precedent? Well, it comes not from Iran – where they hang people for the sport of the Mullahs – or China – where they execute more people than even Amnesty International is able to estimate – but from Great Britain, the home of Magna Carta and the common law (from which the laws of Israel emanate) and a country that enjoys a high reputation in the field of human rights. It is also the country that, in 1998, signed a peace agreement with the IRA and Bobby Sands’ terrorist successors.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, when considering what to do next, might like to consider what went before.

© Howard Epstein – May 2017

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