More than a dozen South African politicians and several anti-apartheid activists and public figures have completed a day-long fast to draw attention to the fight of hunger-striking Palestinians protesting the inhumane conditions in Israeli prisons.
Cabinet members including deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and deputy minister of international relations and co-operation Nomaindia Mfeketo (see below) – who herself was detained several times in the 1980s for anti-government activism – did not eat or drink for 24 hours in solidarity with Palestinians who have now entered their second month of a hunger strike.
The “Freedom and Dignity” strike involving about 1,600 Palestinian prisoners in eight jails is over a range of issues, from access to telephones, lawyers and better medical care to ending solitary detention. “To many of us our solidarity in this campaign is very personal because of our own experience under apartheid. We too, like the heroic Palestinians, were once called terrorists. We, like the Palestinians, were detained. We, like the Palestinians today, embarked on hunger strikes from our prison cells in protest against apartheid South Africa’s human rights violations.
“We also note the growing number of South African Jews who have joined this 24-hour fast and are in protest against Israel’s discriminatory policies. They remind us of our own white comrades who refused to let the apartheid government speak in their name,” Ms Mfeketo said in a statement on Monday.
Former Robben Island political prisoner Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim, artist Natalia Molebatsi and a number of other civil society leaders spoke at a public event on Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill in support of the Palestinian protest.
Dozens more public figures and organisations pledged solidarity with the prisoners. Around 6,500 Palestinians are currently detained in Israeli prisons, most for alleged terrorism convictions, although Palestinian leaders and prisoners’ groups maintain that many have been unfairly tried or are political prisoners. A further 500 are detained under what is known as Administrative Detention, a punitive measure that allows suspects to be held without charge for six-month intervals.
There have been several hunger strikes mounted in the past, but never on so large a scale.
The current protest is being led by Marwan Barghouti, a popular Palestinian leader jailed by Israel for life. Israeli authorities have condemned the strike and the country’s prison service has said it will set up a field hospital to treat hunger strikers if necessary.
After 30 days of consuming nothing but salt water, many protesters are growing increasingly weak – but a statement from one striking faction said prisoners were now considering also refusing water since their demands have not been met.
There is widespread support for the strikers across both the West Bank and Gaza. More than 50 restaurants in the Gaza Strip took everything off the menu except salt water in a publicity stunt earlier this month.
Online, a social-media campaign dubbed the “salt water challenge” has attracted attention across the world after Palestinian pop star Mohammed Assaf downed a glass in a YouTube video, spurring on thousands more to take part.
This edited article originally appeared in The Independent