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Mehdi Hasan: Why have we ignored the plight of Palestine’s Bobby Sands?

We honour the memory of many men who took up armed struggle and died on hunger strike for their beliefs.

"His calls for freedom deserve to be heard. His valiant efforts should not go in vain. The president calls on all supporters of human rights and freedom, and the United Nations, to take up [his] case." Those were the laudable words of the White House press secretary, commenting on the hunger strike of the Iranian dissident and detainee Akbar Ganji in 2005.

Seven years later, the White House has issued no such statement on Khader Adnan, the detained Palestinian father-of-two who decided to end his remarkable 66-day hunger strike on 21 February as doctors warned he was "in immediate danger of death". Perhaps, just perhaps, the US is silent because his jailers are Israelis, not Iranians. Adnan is being held under Israel's "administrative detention" laws - inherited from the British Mandate era - which allow the military to detain prisoners indefinitely, without charging them or making them stand trial.

The 34-year-old baker from Jenin, who is accused by Israel of being a member of the militant group Islamic Jihad and of undefined "activities that threaten regional security", began his hunger strike on 18 December 2011 - the day after he was detained. He protests against what he says was a violent arrest as well as humiliating and abusive interrogation sessions.

His was the longest hunger strike yet by a Palestinian prisoner - and on 21 February it forced the Israeli authorities to agree not to renew his four-month administrative detention when it expires on 17 April. Yet this "deal" might be coming too late for him: on 17 February, the Israeli branch of Physicians for Human Rights said he had already suffered from "significant muscular atrophy" and was near death. His pregnant wife, Randa, who visited him in hospital, told Reuters that he had lost 35 kilos in weight and had started to vomit blood. It isn't easy to survive after starving for nine weeks.

Without trial

So why did he take such extreme action? "I have been humiliated, beaten and harassed by interrogators for no reason, and thus I swore to God I would fight the policy of administrative detention to which I and hundreds of my fellow prisoners fell prey," Adnan wrote in a letter from his hospital bed. There are 309 Palestinians being held under administrative detention by Israel - up from 219 in 2011 - including 24 Palestinian parliamentarians and one man who has been detained without trial for more than two years.

Will Adnan's bold, if near-suicidal strategy help draw attention to their fate, within Israel and beyond? "It's more important to talk about the issue of administrative detention than his hunger strike," a frustrated Anat Litvin, head of the detainees department at Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, told me.

As is so often the case, international law is not on the side of the Israelis. Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) - to which the State of Israel is a signatory - makes clear that no person should be "subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention". The ICCPR allows for governments, in narrow and extreme circumstances, to derogate from this obligation temporarily, yet, as Litvin notes, "Israel uses it on a regular basis".

In fact, the UN's Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has condemned Israel's use of long-term administrative detention - in particular, those cases, like Adnan's, in which detainees are held without trial merely for belonging to an "illegal organisation".

Here in the west, however, we have abandoned any moral high ground we may have occupied. The last Labour government inter­ned terror suspects without trial in Belmarsh between 2001 and 2004; the current coalition government's Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures allow for indefinite house arrest without charge. In the US, President Obama has signed into law the National Defence Authorisation Act, which permits the indefinite detention in military custody of terror suspects. Habeas corpus has been consigned to the history books.

Shameful silence

Meanwhile, the British media, including the BBC, have been shamefully silent on Adnan's plight. As of 21 February, his detention and hunger strike had been ignored by every single UK newspaper, bar the Guardian and the Independent, which ran a handful of pieces. The latter's Donald Macintyre devoted a full-page, 1,100-word report to Adnan's story, headlined "The West Bank's Bobby Sands" - a reference to the 27-year-old IRA prisoner who died in 1981 after 66 days on hunger strike.

It is an apt analogy. "To us, Khader Adnan just brings back memories of what we went through," Danny Morrison, spokesman for the Bobby Sands Trust, tells me. "The parallels are there for all to see." To Morrison, who was also interned in Northern Ireland, Adnan, like Sands, is driven by "the call of justice". He adds: "This man wants to live but what else can he do? He doesn't have any weapons to fight with so he fights with his own body."

“Where, one wonders, is the Palestinian Gandhi?" I asked on these pages in 2009. Perhaps he has arrived, in the unlikely guise of an Islamic Jihad activist. Some senior Israeli figures fear that Adnan's defiant - and effective - actions will inspire other Palestinians, frustrated by the political failures of Fatah and the military failures of Hamas, to engage in non-violent, Gandhi-style protests, both inside and outside Israel's prisons. As with all occupiers and oppressors throughout history, the Israelis are fighting a losing battle. Terence MacSwiney was an Irish republican activist and lord mayor of Cork who was imprisoned by the British in August 1920 and died the following October after 74 days on hunger strike. As MacSwiney once remarked: "It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most, who will conquer in the end."

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The God Wars

The Alternative
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"I won't do this forever": meet Alternative leader, Uffe Elbæk – Denmark's Jeremy Corbyn

The Alternative party leader speaks frankly about his party's journey from being seen as a comedy sideshow to taking nine seats in the Danish elections.

In Britain, popular anti-politics sentiment has engulfed the Labour party, through Jeremy Corbyn. In Denmark's splintered, assorted political landscape, it has created a party called the Alternative. The barely two-year-old party was depicted as a comedic sideshow before June's elections. But with nine of 179 seats, they embarrassed all electoral predictions, including their own. Their rise owes to a growing European gripe with politics as usual, as well as to growing chasms within Danish politics.

"I don't want to do this forever. I want to be a pensioner, lay on a beach somewhere, write books and make money from speeches." Embracing his maverick figure, the 61-year-old witty, self-deprecating leader, Uffe Elbæk, has become one of the most resonant voices in Danish politics. As an ex-culture minister he was tarred by conflict of interest accusations leading to him to voluntarily step down as minister in 2012. He was later cleared of wrongdoing but the ridicule in the media stuck. His re-emergence in Danish politics is no longer trivial. His party has struck a match on a sentiment he claims is not European but international.

"What we see across Europe is a growing divide between politicians and their electorate. We are trying to bridge that divide and move from a representative democracy to a far more involving democracy. You see the same in the Scottish Referendum, in Syriza, in Podemos, in a way in Bernie Sanders and, of course, in Jeremy Corbyn".

In tandem with the rise of populist parties in Europe, they've capitalised on a discontent with mainstream politics, perceived spin and sound bite. In the last elections, the Alternative refused to directly persuade the electorate to vote for them, instead encouraging them to vote on their convictions.

“We are critical of the neoliberal doctrine from Thatcher and Reagan and growing inequality," explains Elbæk. "But I believe deeply in human potential and creating a more entrepreneurial, creative society based on progressive values".

The party decides its policies in what they call "political laboratories" where members and non-members are invited to share, hone, and develop policy ideas. The party is in many respects what it says on the tin. Despite flinching away from left and right political categories, they are staunchly pro-environment and pro-immigration.

"A lot of progressives do a lot of good things in the grassroots, but the reality is that few want to go into the big party machines." The Alternative has been a huge grassroots built campaign, attracting exactly those types of voters. It has gained over 6,000 members in its first two years, a remarkable feat as membership across Danish political parties steadily declines.

The party appeals to a desire, more prominent on the left of the Danish electorate, for a straight-talking, green party not overtly party political but reminiscent of conventionally Scandinavian values of tolerance and consensus. It is hawkish about whether socialist-inspired thinking is condusive to modern challenges, but similarly it believes in harnessing public support directly. They are a growing albeit slightly hippy and unconventional vehicle for political expression.

The migrant crisis has exposed chasms in Danish politics. Controversial proposals to advertise anti-refugee adverts, by integration minister Inger Støjberg, have sparked widespread concern. From across politics and from business, there has been a steady reel of expressed concern that Denmark risks creating a perception of intolerance to foreigners.

A private Danish group called People Reaching Out, published adverts in the same four Lebanese newspapers that ran the anti-refugee ads. Crowdfunding over £16,000, they replicated the original ads writing, "sorry for the hostility towards refugees expressed here. From people's to people's we wish to express our compassion and sympathy to anyone fleeing war and despair".

Michala Bendixen, who heads the campaign group, Refugee's Welcome, wrote an op-ed in The Daily Star, one of the Lebanese papers which carried the ad. She stated that, "the adverts give a completely distorted picture of the situation", clarifying that the Danish asylum process was amongst the fastest in Europe.

Støjberg's reforms to immigration and almost 50 per cent cuts to refugee benefits have made her a controversial figure but despite much criticism, topped a recent poll of ministers in the current government that voters felt were doing well. Largely on the back of a hardline position on immigration, the Danish People's Party won 21 per cent of the popular vote in this year's elections. Similarly to many countries across Europe, the migrant crisis has been emotive and polarising. On that divide, the Alternative has been categorical.

"In Denmark there is one thing happening in politics and another in the streets," says Elbæk. "There is a disgraceful lack of empathy from politicians but the reaction from the Danish people has been really touching. Suddenly we were seeing hundreds of refugees on our motorways, and it came as a reality shock to the Danish people. But they responded to it by offering shelter, food, water, and blankets."

Denmark's new government is hardening its position on immigrants and refugees. The split reaction reflects a more polarised terrain. There is a debate about what Denmark's values really are, and whether the migrant crisis betrays or protects them. Within it, the Alternative, partly motley, but with a non-trivial and rising electoral appeal, are an increasingly influential voice.