Palestinian prisoners launch protest through hunger strike
London - A hunger strike by Palestinians in Israeli jails has put the spotlight on prison conditions and highlights political tensions in the Occupied Territories.
Around 1,500 Palestinian prisoners have joined a hunger strike that began on April 17, led by Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti.
“Having spent the last 15 years in an Israeli prison, I have been both a witness to and a victim of Israel’s illegal system of mass arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment of Palestinian prisoners,” Barghouti wrote in a New York Times opinion piece. “After exhausting all other options, I decided there was no choice but to resist these abuses by going on a hunger strike.”
Barghouti is serving five life sentences for his role in the 2000-05 uprising known as the second intifada.
There are almost 6,500 Palestinians in 22 Israeli jails, said Qadoura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club. The prisoners include 62 women and 300 minors. Approximately 500 people are held without charge, said Issa Qaraqe, head of detainees’ affairs for the Palestinian Authority.
Hunger strikers’ demands include halting detention without trial, ending solitary confinement, having access to better medical treatment as well as more contact with their families.
Israeli authorities have refused to negotiate with the hunger strikers. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, speaking on Israeli Army Radio, said they were “terrorists and incarcerated murderers who are getting what they deserve.” Israeli authorities “would not hesitate to implement the law which authorises the force-feeding of detainees,” Agence France-Presse (AFP) quoted Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked as saying.
“While Israeli officials are bullish now, the track record suggests that, should the hunger strike reach a critical stage — and if there is sufficient pressure from various sources — there will be a compromise on the prisoners’ demands,” said Ben White, a writer specialising in the Palestinian territories and Israel.
The major Palestinian factions, including rivals Hamas and Fatah, have expressed strong support for the hunger strike. Qaraqe warned that, if prisoners die, “that could lead to a new intifada,” AFP said.
It is unclear how long the show of unity can last. “Cross-factional support for the hunger strike reflects the significance of the issue more generally but cannot, by itself, resolve or even mask the more fundamental divisions afflicting the internal Palestinian area,” White said.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called on “the international community to save the lives of the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.” The United Nations said it was following the situation closely.
Palestinian officials have reportedly asked the International Criminal Court to examine how Israel imprisons Palestinians. “Countries that have signed international accords must not allow the occupier to be above the law,” Palestinian lawmaker Khalida Jarrar told AFP.
A number of Israelis outside a prison taunted the hunger-striking prisoners by barbecuing.
Israeli columnist Amira Hass said the message of the strike was twofold; concerning the prisoners themselves and Palestinians outside jail who still feel imprisoned.
“It’s about basic human rights that even prisoners, even prisoners who are members of the other nation, deserve… What the prisoners are trying to say to the Israel Prison Service and the Israeli public is that both sides have an interest in the prisons maintaining a level of decency,” she wrote in the Israeli daily Haaretz.
“But beyond the regular prisons, Israel has created and continues to create all kinds of other means of imprisoning Palestinians… Thus the experience of imprisonment, whether in a formal prison or another kind, is shared by all Palestinians… the hunger strike is a means of liberation from the destructive effect of the multiple prison cells on the outside,” she said.
Some observers said the hunger strikes were politically motivated and mainly directed against Abbas.
“It appears that the background to the strike has to do with intra- Palestinian power struggles as much as it has to do with the struggle against Israel,” wrote Amos Harel in Haaretz.
“The media attention from a prolonged strike will serve (Barghouti) in his moves vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority leadership, which is officially supporting the strike but in actuality is concerned about any outcome that could advance the standing of the imprisoned leader, who is not especially liked by President Mahmoud Abbas and his people,” he added.
In an opinion article published on the website of the Gatestone Institute, a New York think-tank, Bassam Tawil wrote: “Palestinians have an old habit of settling internal scores by diverting their grievances and violence towards Israel.”
Palestinian commentators, however, dismissed this narrative as Israeli propaganda, saying that Tel Aviv is trying to deflect attention from its policies by claiming the strike is about internal Fatah politics.
“Marwan Barghouti is already the most popular Palestinian leader and he knows that he has little hope of getting out of prison soon, so he has no personal motive,” said Iyad Barakat, a Palestinian writer in London.
“Barghouti has put the spotlight on the ills of occupation, reminding the world that Israel is directly responsible for what is happening to the Palestinians. This move will help, not hinder, Abbas as he meets US President Donald Trump in May.”