More than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails started a hunger strike on Monday Aprill 17, the Palestinian Prisoners Day, demanding better detention conditions. They request to be allowed more family visits, an end to to be put to both solitary confinement and the practice of detention without trial, and more access to healthcare and education.
One major issue facing Palestinian prisoners from Gaza and West Bank in jails located inside Israel’s borders is that they don't get easy and regular access to their families. Due to security procedures, crossing the many checkpoints dividing Palestinian territories and Israel is not easy, or is refused altogether. At times it happens that family members who are willing to meet their relatives do not reach in time or are not allowed to cross, resulting in a senseless psychological stress both for them and the detainees. The human rights focused NGO Amnesty International recently issued a report on this matter.
Shortly after the beginning of the hunger strike, thousands of Palestinian activists demonstrated in several cities to show their support to the inmates’ cause. The biggest solidarity demonstration was held in Ramallah, where some 2,000 people took to the street.
Palestinian inmates declared that the hunger strike won’t end until the prisons’ management meets all their requests. Their protest is expected to involve more than 2,000 detainees.
The strike was called by Marwan Barghouti--a 58-year-old prominent member of Fatah who led the first and the second intifada and is currently serving five life sentences for murder.
Reuters reported that after the beginning of the strike, Barghouti was moved to another jail and held in solitary confinement. The New York Times informed that not only was he accused of leading the protest, he has also been accused of smuggling out a pamphlet which they decided to carry as an opinion piece. Barghouti’s document explains his reasons behind the protest.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commented scathingly on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, saying that “calling Barghouti a 'political leader' is like calling Assad a 'pediatrician'. They are murderers and terrorists. We will never lose our sense of clarity because we are on the side of justice and they are on the side that is neither just nor moral”.
The Israeli public security minister Gilad Erdan denied any allegation of mistreating prisoners, and declared that the hunger strike is "prompted by internal Palestinian politics and therefore includes unreasonable demands.”
Israel’s foreign ministry went even further, stating that "the Palestinian prisoners are not political prisoners. They are convicted terrorists and murderers. They were brought to justice and are treated properly under international law”.
Under Israeli prison law, voluntarily refusing food is a punishable offence and a hunger strike is considered an illegal action. The Israeli outlet Haaretz published a statement by the country’s prison service, saying: “The Israel Prison Service has a great deal of experience in coping with hunger strikes, and it has the ways and the means to deal with them. It should be noted that the Prison Service does not conduct negotiations with prisoners.”
The detainees’ political action comes at a critical time for Israel, which will witness the 50th anniversary of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip occupation in June. The Palestinian authority has said that the hunger strike is uniting prisoners from the two rival factions of Fatah and Hamas, which is currently governing the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian President and Hamas leader Mahmoud Abbas declared that his organisation has all the intention to support the prisoner’s struggle, which is among their top priorities.
The inmates’ unity is most likely due to the high consideration Barghouti enjoys among the Palestinian population. Many see him as capable of dethroning the 82-year-old Mahmoud Abbas and running as the next presidential candidate. This strike could definitely help Barghouti to strengthen his position in order to gather consensus for the next election and end the Hamas-led government.
Given all the implications, the strike seems destined to last long.