I t was a unity rarely seen outside prison walls when Palestinians affiliated with different political factions started an open-ended hunger strike this week to protest against poor conditions and the Israeli policy of detention without trial. Israeli officials meanwhile said the strike was politically motivated.
The call for a mass hunger strike was issued by Marwan Barghouti, a high-ranking member of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party, who was sentenced to five life sentences on murder charges during the Second Intifada. By Israel labeled a terrorist, many Palestinians regard him as a national hero.
Prisoners’ demands include the abolishment of detention without trial, more family visits, improvement of medical conditions and a pay phone in each prison wing. Israel’s Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan issued a strong reply, calling the prisoners “terrorists and murderers” and saying on Tuesday “we have no reason to negotiate with them”. Israel denies that Palestinian inmates are mistreated.
An official source in the Israel Prison Service (IPS) told The World Weekly that the IPS had “past experience in dealing with hunger strikes and has the means to contain them. As a rule, IPS does not negotiate with prisoners.”
The strike comes amid a symbolic year, months before the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war, during which Israeli forces seized the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, a move never recognised by the vast majority of the international community.
Some view the hunger strike as a political move by Mr. Barghouti, who is seen as a possible future Palestinian president. “The strike is a political step, carefully planned and organised by Marwan Barghouti,” wrote the Times of Israel’s Middle East analyst Avi Issacharoff.
Almost 6,500 Palestinians are being held in 22 Israeli prisons, according to Qadoura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners' Club.
Beyond the signs of unity behind bars - Hamas and Islamic Jihad members joined the hunger strike - political divisions between Mr. Abbas’ Fatah and Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, are deepening.
The strike also throws up difficult questions for Israeli authorities, such as the possible deaths of prisoners or the issue of force-feeding. Minister Erdan ordered the establishment of a field hospital next to the Ketziot Prison, in what has been seen as a move to prevent the transfer of prisoners to civilian hospitals where Israeli doctors have in the past refused to force-feed prisoners.
“It will take a few weeks” until Israeli authorities will start to negotiate with the prisoners, says Omar Shaban, founder of PalThink for Strategic Studies, a Gaza-based think-tank. “The level of success in changing the conditions will depend on how much support the strike will get from the Palestinian community and Palestinian Authority,” he told The World Weekly.