Hunger strike over, many demands met
Palestinian prisoners agree to end hunger strike
By Diaa Hadid, Associated Press
RAMALLAH, West Bank— Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners agreed Monday to end a weekslong hunger strike after winning concessions from Israel to improve their conditions and limit detentions without trial, the two sides announced, resolving a standoff that united Palestinians behind one of their most emotional causes.
The deal ended one of the largest prison protests ever staged by the Palestinians. Two men had refused food for 77 days, the longest ever Palestinian hunger strike, leaving them in life-threatening conditions, according to their supporters.
With the Palestinians set to hold an annual day of mourning on Tuesday, both sides were eager to wrap up a deal to lower tensions. The Palestinians are marking what they call the “nakba,” or “catastrophe,” the term they use in describing the suffering that resulted from Israel’s establishment 64 years ago.
Both Israeli and Palestinian officials, as well as representatives of Palestinian militant groups, confirmed the deal had been signed on Monday afternoon. Egyptian mediators had brokered the deal, in which Palestinian officials from the West Bank, militant leaders and prisoner representatives participated over several days.
Two men launched the strike on Feb. 27, and were joined by hundreds of others on April 17.
Among their demands: permission to receive family visits from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and an end to solitary confinement.
More ambitiously, they also demanded an end to an Israeli policy of “administrative detention,” under which suspected militants are held for months, and sometimes years, without being charged. Israel has defended the policy as a necessary security measure.
Israel said it had granted many of the requests, including new limits on administrative detention. While the policy wasn’t scrapped, detentions cannot be extended if Israel does not present additional intelligence information to a military court, according to the Shin Bet security agency.
The Shin Bet also said the roughly 400 prisoners from Gaza will now be allowed to receive family visits, like their West Bank brethren. The visits from Gaza were halted in 2006 after Hamas-linked militants in Gaza captured an Israeli soldier. After the soldier was released in a prisoner swap last October, the Palestinians said the ban should be lifted.
Israel also said it would halt its punitive policy of placing prisoners in solitary confinement and allow prisoners to make phone calls to relatives. Palestinian officials said prisoners would also be permitted to pursue academic studies.
The Shin Bet said in return, the prisoners pledged “to absolutely stop terror activity from inside Israeli jails.” It also said militant group’s commanders outside the jails made a commitment “to prevent terror activity.” It said militant violence or resumed prisoner strikes would “annul the Israeli commitment.”
The two longest strikers, Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahleh, who have gone 77 days without food, had said they would not start eating again until their administrative detentions are lifted.
Diab has been held without charge since last August, and Halahleh has been in administrative detention since June 2010, and spent an additional six and a half years in administrative detention last decade.
Israel has not said what they are suspected of doing. Both men are members of Islamic Jihad, a violent Palestinian militant group that has killed hundreds and maimed many more in suicide bombings, shootings and other attacks.
It was not immediately known whether the pair would be released. Another Islamic Jihad militant, Khader Adnan, staged a 66-day hunger strike earlier this year that ended after Israel agreed to free him.
Israel said some 1,600 prisoners, or more than a third of the 4,500 Palestinians held by Israel, joined the hunger strike. Palestinians said the number was closer to 2,500.
The fate of the prisoners is an emotional issue in Palestinian society, where nearly everyone has a neighbor or relative who has spent time in an Israeli jail. As the strike dragged on, hundreds of Palestinians took to the streets of the West Bank and Gaza to demonstrate in solidarity.
For families of the prisoners, any deal that did not win freedom of the prisoners fell short.
“Will they release Bilal? Is it over?” asked Missadeh Diab, the elderly mother of Diab, one of the prisoners who refused food for 77 days. “May God give your demands and freedom.”
Israeli officials expressed hope that the prisoner deal would help bring President Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table. Abbas has refused to engage in peace talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, demanding that Israel halt construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Ofir Gendleman, a spokesman for Netanyahu, said as an additional gesture, Israel would return to the Palestinians the bodies of 100 militants killed in combat against Israel.
Haitham Hamad in Ramallah, West Bank, and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.
Sources within the Palestinian Prisoners Club claim that agreement regulates administrative detainees, solitary confinement policy, and visits from family members residing in Gaza.
By Jack Khoury, Haaretz
Israel Prison Services reported on Monday that Palestinian prisoners have agreed to end their hunger strike. Senior sources within the Palestinian Prisoner’s Club told Haaretz that an agreement was forged between the Israel Prison Services and the prisoners, containing three main chapters concerning administrative detainees, solitary confinement policy, and visits from family members residing in Gaza.
Earlier Monday, it was reported that a disagreement arose between the prisoner’s delegation and prison service officials at Ashkelon prison, concerning administrative detainees. According to the report, a senior Egyptian Intelligence official was summoned to Israel in order to resolve the disagreement. After hours of feverish negotiations that included intervention from the Egyptian Intelligence official, an agreement was reached and signed by the Israel Prison Service and prisoner representatives.
A Fatah Central Committee member, Azxam Al Ahmad, said that the agreement between the committee representing the prisoners and the Israel Prison Services responded to the prisoner’s demands. Al Ahmad, a resident of Cairo, said that he met with senior Egyptian officials that served as mediators for the negotiations. According to Ahmad, senior Egyptian Intelligence officials, Rafaat Shehata, and General Nader Al Asar led the mediation efforts.
Over the last few days, progress began on prisoner demands as the negotiations between prisoner representatives and Israeli officials advanced, in a bid to end the widespread hunger strike that has lasted nearly a month. Roughly 1,600 prisoners among the 4,600 prisoners held in Israel are participating in the strike. Three prisoners have refused to eat for more than 70 days, and concern for their lives has been raised.
Last week, the organization Physicians for Human Rights petitioned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Health Ministry, the Israeli Medical Association, the Israel Prison Service, and the director of Assaf Harofeh Hospital, with demands to transfer hunger-striking prisoners to civilian hospitals. In the letter sent by Physicians for Human Rights, the organization expresses significant fears that considerations other than prisoner’s health were influencing Israel Prison Service policy, among them an attempt to put pressure on the prisoners to end the strike by refusing to transfer prolonged hunger-strikers to civilian hospitals.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon released a statement last week calling for the release of prisoners held on administrative detention, or allowing them to stand trial. Moon’s call joined that of the EU, which criticized Israel for the use of administrative detention and also called for Israel to allow the administrative detainees the right to family visits. The French Embassy in Israel also expressed concern over the deteriorating situation of some of the hunger-striking prisoners, and noted that administrative detention must be used only in severe and rare cases.
Last Tuesday, the Knesset approved the second and third reading of legislation proposed to arrange humane prison conditions for all prisoners in Israel, including security prisoners. The legislation merges a law proposed by Dov Khenin (Hadash) with a proposal offered by the Ministry of Public Security.