Will Alexander, 28 May 2024
Will Alexander, 28 May 2024

SocietyJune 5, 2024

An interview with Will Alexander, who was willing to die for the people of Palestine

Will Alexander, 28 May 2024
Will Alexander, 28 May 2024

On May 18, Will Alexander announced his hunger strike for Palestine. Today, he ended it.

After one day without food, the body starts turning to other energy sources: glycogen from the liver and muscles, then fat, and finally, muscle tissue – including that of the heart. The body begins to function differently to reduce the energy it burns. It can no longer supply necessary nutrients to vital organs and tissues. Within three days, immunity drops, and one is susceptible to infections. After four days a person will feel faint, dizzy and weak. After two weeks, coordination will be lost, the heart rate will be low and the person could begin to feel depressed and apathetic. In the third week they could lose their vision and experience other neurological problems. After a month, the body could be permanently damaged, and organs could fail. The person may have difficulty breathing, swallowing, experience vertigo, and have hearing and vision loss. After 45 days, they’re highly likely to die, probably from infection or cardiovascular collapse. 

Today, on day 19, Will Alexander ended his hunger strike. 

“Enough people have lost their lives,” he said in a statement. “As my health is being affected, they [people in Palestine] are asking me to stop.” Yesterday, he said that he was feeling tired and emotionally sensitive. “I’m just staying home most of the time now,” he texted me, and even his text seemed devoid of energy and joy. 

Protestors outside Rakon in Mt Wellington, 28 May 2024

When I met him last Tuesday, on day 10 of no food, a small crocheted Palestinian flag was pinned onto his Swannie, on the left hand side over his heart. He’d flown to Tāmaki Makaurau from his hometown Ōtautahi in high spirits to attend and speak at a rally. It was a grey and windy day, but he was still wearing more layers than most – a thick woollen beanie, a scarf tucked into his Swanndri, merino layers underneath, handknitted green, red and white hand warmers and brown leather shoes tied up tight. His body, having had no calories for 10 days, had switched to using its fat and muscle reserves for energy. As a result, his core temperature would have dropped and his heart rate slowed. 

“I’m absolutely terrified,” said Alexander when I asked him about his plans going forward. A hunger strike, at its core, is the protestor putting their body and life on the line for a cause. “Now is not the time to stop, and I don’t intend to stop,” he told me on day 10 me, calm and clear. He said his body had “changed a lot” and he’dad lost 10kgs. Now, it’s 12 – he’s down to 83kgs from his usual weight of 95kgs. He’d been feeling shaky and dizzy since day four. Until he saw a doctor a few days ago, Alexander had had only water, then he followed medical advice to take electrolytes and multivitamins. If a protester is healthy before the hunger strike, and drinks only water, they’re at risk of dying after three weeks. 

Publicly, he made little of the effects of the hunger strike on his body until today. In his social media videos and posts it is his demands and calls to action which he focuses on. In media interviews he’s acknowledged that people have shown concern, but has tried to redirect that concern elsewhere. “I’m in a lot more of a comfortable position than pregnant mothers and children that have nothing to eat and are in a war zone,” he told The Post this week. Yet, it’s the life-threatening nature of a hunger strike which lends power to this form of protest.

By refusing food and bringing attention to an injustice, otherwise powerless people have taken stands against powerful people and systems. Hunger strikes do have a long history as an effective tool for change, but the change is rarely instant or straightforward. Gandhi staged many hunger strikes for different causes with mixed results. Through one fast in opposition to a British constitutional proposal which separated castes, he was able to secure the withdrawal of the proposal, but other times he concluded his fasts without immediate or tangible change. Others have continued till death. In 1981 Bobby Sands, a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), died from a 66- day hunger strike demanding to be treated as a political prisoner not as a criminal. Though he was elected to parliament during his strike, his demands were not met. When he died, more imprisoned IRA members took on the hunger strike in his place. Nine more died. The strikes were called off after requests from relatives of the remaining hunger strikers. Afterwards, fellow inmates were granted political status, and the hunger strikes are cited as part of the reason violence ceased in Northern Ireland.

Will Alexander giving an interview, 28 May 2024

Alexander’s been busy since he announced his hunger strike at an Ōtautahi rally on May 18. There’s been a flurry of videos posted to social media, press releases sent out, media interviews, a stake out of parliament, a meeting with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, an online petition set up and a visit up to Auckland for the rally against Rakon which is where we speak. On that day, about 40 protesters from the groups Palestine Collective and Palestine Solidarity Network Aotearoa (PSNA) gathered with flags and banners outside the Rakon manufacturing plants and offices in Mount Wellington, a site which has been the focus of pro-Palestine protests since at least 2009. Activists say Rakon manufactures crystal oscillators, which it supplies to arms manufacturers in the United States who make the “smart bombs” Israel drops in Gaza.

On the same day, Rakon released a statement saying “Rakon does not design or manufacture weapons. We do not supply products to Israel for weapons, and we are not aware of our products being incorporated into weapons which are provided to Israel.” This did not impress Alexander – “everyone already knew that they don’t make weapons – they make components for weapons. We also already knew that they don’t sell the components to Israel, they sell them to the United States.”

An investigation into the company is one of three demands Alexander has made of the New Zealand government since the very start of his hunger strike. On that day in front of the Bridge of Remembrance, he said, “I will not eat anything until the New Zealand government stops bombing Yemen and withdraws our troops from the Red Sea. I will not eat anything till the New Zealand government stops Rakon, a company in New Zealand, from manufacturing bomb parts that are used in Isreal’s genocide. I will not eat anything till the New Zealand government resumes and then doubles its humanitarian aid funding for UNRWA.” They’re demands that still stand. 

In a statement provided to The Spinoff, a spokesperson for Winston Peters, minister for foreign affairs, said “New Zealand maintains its positions in relation to the issues Mr Alexander is highlighting. We receive a wide range of views/opinions on the current situation in the Middle East.” They stated that the next annual contribution to UNRWA is due next month, and that currently MFAT is reviewing the UN investigation into the claims UNRWA staff were involved in the October 7 attacks. The decision will be announced in the “near future”. The UN investigation was clear in its conclusion that Israel never gave supporting evidence for its claims that UNWRA employees had connections to Hamas. Other countries, like Australia, have already reinstated their UNWRA funding.

Peters’ spokesperson did not address Alexander’s other two demands, withdrawing our six NZDF personnel in the Red Sea or investigating Rakon.

Luxon was approached for comment but as of yet has not provided one. He has publicly addressed the hunger strike, saying it’s a “real shame” that Alexander is feeling the need to do it. “I am actually very proud of the New Zealand government’s response,” said Luxon, before detailing a list of calls the government has made in the past months. Alexander has seen the video, and says, “it just highlighted the inadequacy of our government’s response. He made a long list and sounded very reasonable about all of the things that New Zealand has called for. They have called for a ceasefire, they have called for Israel to abide by international law, they have called for a huge number of things. But what has New Zealand actually practically done, other than sending our troops to the Red Sea to support the United States in a military effort?”

The hunger strike is not Alexander’s first action in support of Palestine. In February, he walked 600km from Christchurch to the Israeli embassy in Wellington as a fundraiser for UNICEF and its Children of Gaza Crisis project. Videos show him carrying a large tramping backpack and waving a Palestinian flag along quiet highways. He raised $3,701 over 11 weeks but he wanted to do more. “I didn’t feel as though I was being heard or it was making enough of a difference.” He attended the weekly rallies in Ōtautahi and joined one of the groups which organises them, the Palestine Solidarity Network Aotearoa (PSNA). “I love the rallies. And I love the actions that people are doing – but if it doesn’t put pressure on the government, then it’s not making much of a difference,” he says. 

Unsatisfied by seeing the gulf between the demands made at rallies and the actions of the government, a thought began to circulate in Alexander’s head. Would he give his life to save others? Is his life worth more than those in Gaza? It’s a common moral conundrum which most people relegate to the back of their minds. We don’t think of going on a hunger strike, only that those people are far away and it’s difficult to help them. But the idea of a hunger strike began to haunt Alexander. The thought wouldn’t leave his mind. “I couldn’t live with myself if I knew that I had an idea of something that I could have done, and didn’t do it.” Then, he was asked to MC a rally. “The thought came to me that all I have to do is say those words – I just have to say these few sentences: ‘I’m going on hunger strike until this this and this happens.’ And so I said those words and it rolled on from there.”

Going on a hunger strike made sense to him because people are starving in Gaza. “At the moment there is a famine, which has been caused by Israel’s siege. There are children, there are pregnant mothers, there are people with cancer, there are disabled people, there are grandparents, and they’re starving.”

On the pavement outside Rakon laston Tuesday, Alexander was “feeling positive” that to at least some extent, his hunger strike was working. “That things are shifting, and a huge amount of awareness is being raised about these mistakes that our government is making,” he said. He was looking down at his hands as he fiddled with his hand warmers – hand knitted with the colours of the Palestinian flag – and apologised for feeling a little tired, and speaking a little lilted. “Pressure has been put on the government because of this too, to make changes.”

After we spoke, Alexander was surrounded by a group of people wearing keffiyeh, holding flags and signs. One held an A3 printout of Alexander’s demands along with a small photograph of his face, a sign not unlike those used to honour martyrs. “Thank you for doing what we can’t,” said one woman. A man alongside her nodded vigorously. “We’re all here for you, whatever you need,” he added. “Would you recommend that others take up a hunger strike?” asked a younger man. At the time, Alexander’s answer wasn’t expected. He said no, and even warned others against it. “I think it would be a beautiful way to die – to give your life for other people. However, after a lot of thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is more powerful and more difficult to live for a cause than to die for a cause. If you can dedicate your entire life to the recognition of a Palestinian state or freedom for Palestine, that is a lot more difficult and more powerful than dying for a cause.”

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