Israel has been warned that it faces a major uprising in the West Bank after six Palestinian prisoners taking part in one of the largest and most protracted hunger strikes ever staged in its jails were said to be close to death.
By Adrian Blomfield, in Kharas, the West Bank, The Telegraph
Palestinian militant groups and moderate politicians alike have predicted that years of relative tranquility could be brought to an abrupt and violent end if any of the 1,600 inmates now refusing food were to starve to death.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said this week that the six inmates who have declined sustenance the longest are “at imminent risk of dying”.
None of the six, who have all been admitted to prison hospitals, has eaten for the past 50 days. But the greatest concern is directed at two men, Thaer Halahleh and Bilal Diab.
By Thursday, both men had refused food for 74 days, one more than managed by Kieran Doherty, the longest surviving of the 10 Irish militants who died during the Maze Prison hunger strike of 1981. Bobby Sands, the best known of the prisoners and the first to die, succumbed after 66 days.
The two men’s act of defiance, initially a largely solitary affair called to protest their incarceration without trial, has spiralled into a major crisis for Israel. The vast majority of the 1,600 inmates demanding better prison conditions and and end to the practice of detention without trial have now been on hunger strike for 24 days and an ever growing number are having to receive medial attention.
But it is the potential for the crisis to spread beyond the razor-coiled walls of its prisons that really worries Israel. Prisoner rights have always been a deeply emotive subject for Palestinians, a fifth of whom — some 700,000 people — have served time in Israeli jails, according to activist groups.
There have already been violent clashes between protesters and the Israeli security forces outside prisons where hunger-striking inmates are being held. More demonstrations are planned for Friday.
Although the protests have been small so far, any death could cause such outrage that it could easily revive the resentments that triggered the Second Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, in 2000, according to relatives of some of the prisoners.
“If anyone dies there will be a third intifada that will include both violence and non-violence,” said Ahmad Zidan, whose brother Rami is among the hunger strikers.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a militant Gaza-based group, has already declared that it will end its ceasefire if any prisoner dies while this week Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, sounded his own ominous warning.
“It is very dangerous,” Mahmoud Abbas told Reuters. “If anyone dies today or tomorrow or after a week, it would be a disaster and no-one could control the situation.”
For the moment, however, Palestinians are exulting in challenging Israel through non-violent means.
In Kharas, the village near the city of Hebron when he was born, Thaer Halahleh has become a hero, a reputation that has spread through the West Bank because of the perceived dignity of his act of protest.
At his home on Thursday his mother Fatima anxiously awaited news of her son, aware that his life hung in the balance — all the more so after Israel’s supreme court this week rejected demands by Halahleh and Diab to be charged or freed.
Her hopes were lifted by the arrival of an intensely personal letter, written two days before and addressed to his family.
To his parents, he wrote: “I salute you from the middle of the battle and from the depth of my suffering. My morale is very high and my will very strong. Do not worry about me.”
Turning to his wife Shireen and his daughter Namer, born a fortnight after his arrest two years ago, he added: “I cannot explain with words my love for you. I do this for the sake of God and my homeland, my wife and my daughter. Take care of her and take care of your health and forgive me that I cannot be there to hug you.”
But in a letter to his lawyer on the same day, he struck a more sombre note, writing that he had lost more than 50lb.
“I have inflammation in my hands. It comes and goes. I’m bleeding in my stomach and from my gums. I have mouth ulcers and my muscles are shrinking — I feel my body has stopped operating normally,” he wrote.
“My excrement is black and I feel very cold. The doctors have been insulting. One told me: ‘I hope you die.'”
It is powerful stuff, and his refusal to bow down is why Israel is so scared, according to Halahleh’s brother Maher.
“This is a battle of wills,” he said. “He doesn’t have a weapon, but he has a weapon stronger than a weapon. This is a new weapon that is stronger than a nuclear bomb. Israel is fighting people who have no weapons, only their will.”
Israeli officials admit they are in quandary. Israel has already reached deals to free two hunger striking prisoners earlier this year. If they do the same with Halahleh and Diab, both accused of membership of Palestinian Islamic Jihand which they deny, it would only embolden other hunger-striking prisoners.
Nor is it willing to end the practice of “administrative detention”, under which more than 300 Palestinians are held, saying the practice is essential to protect informants in the West Bank whose identity would be exposed in a trial before open court.
“From Israel’s point of view, if every time someone goes on hunger strike they get a get out of jail free card, obviously that would not be sustainable,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
But he also conceded that any deaths would be dangerous for Israel and would give some of the instigators of the hunger strike what he said they have been after all along: a martyr.
“We don’t want to see someone on custody commit suicide,” he said. “Many of these prisoners were involved in very gruesome crimes against civilians. There is a concern that some of them are trying to commit suicide in order to instigate violence.”
Jihad: Any hunger-striker death will start next intifada
06. (updated 09)05.12
GAZA CITY — Islamic Jihad leader Mohammad Al-Hindi warned Sunday that the death of any hunger-striking prisoner will start the third intifada, referencing the popular uprisings against Israeli occupation.
The Jihad official said the “battle of the empty stomachs” — in which more than 2,000 jailed Palestinians are refusing food — had overcome factional divisions.
“This battle will be the gateway for Palestinian unity,” he told supporters of the hunger-strikers at a solidarity tent in central Gaza City.
Al-Hindi urged cross-factional demonstrations to support the prisoners even if they lead to clashes with Israeli forces.
He also called on the Arab League to shut Israeli embassies and expel envoys in response to the popular protest rocking Israel’s jails.
Meanwhile, the Arab League held an urgent meeting in Cairo on Sunday to discuss the situation, with the Kuwaiti chair of the summit posing a resolution at the UN General Assembly to support the prisoners.
Delegates also urged the World Health Organization to investigate the conditions inside Israeli jails for Palestinians, official PA news agency Wafa reported.
On April 17, Palestinian prisoners day, over 1,000 prisoners joined a group of hunger-strikers protesting detention without charge. Around 2,000 are now taking part in the strike, prisoners rights groups estimate.
Administrative detainees Bilal Diab, 27, from Jenin, and Thaer Halahla, 33, from Hebron — are in a precarious condition after 68 days without food, a doctor from Physicians for Human Rights-Israel said this week.
The organization petitioned an Israeli court to allow an independent doctor to access to Diab, but the urgent appeal was rejected and postponed until a regular hearing on Monday, PHR said.
The group also slammed the Israeli High Court for not setting a date to hear an appeal against Diab and Halahla’s detention orders.
“By ignoring the gravity of their current situation, the High Court judges are not only acting with severe negligence, but also with malicious intent,” PHR said in a joint statement with prisoners rights group Addameer.