Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike

More than 1,600 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody launched an open-ended mass hunger strike on April 17, Palestinian Prisoners' Day, led by imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, under the banner of "Freedom and Dignity" for prisoners. Sources told Ma'an News Agency that prisoners had purged all food products from their cells and shaved their heads in Israel prisons from the north to the south, namely in the Gilboa, Hadarim, Ashkelon, Ktziot, Nafha, and Ramon prisons. In the southern occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem, a number of activists in al-Duheisha refugee camp shaved their heads in solidarity with the hunger strikers, while a rally took place marking Prisoners' Day in the nearby Aida refugee camp that honored current and former prisoners from the camp.

Initially called for by Fatah-affiliated prisoners, Palestinian prisoners from across the political spectrum have since pledged their commitment to undertake the strike, which by some estimates, exceeded 2,000 participants when it began after midnight on the morning of Prisoners' Day.

The Palestinian prime minister's office released a statement, summarizing the long list of demands put forward by hunger strikers under Barghouti's leadership. "A mass hunger strike started today calling for basic needs and rights of prisoners in an attempt to put an end to the practice of arbitrary administrative detention, torture, ill-treatment, unfair trials, detention of children, medical negligence, solitary confinement, inhuman/degrading treatment, deprivation of basic rights such as family visits and the right to education."

Palestinian Minister of Foreign Affairs Riyad al-Maliki said that the prisoners were completely aware of the "price" they might pay for going on hunger strike, knowingly putting their lives at risk while they are already suffering from medical negligence in Israeli custody.
Al-Maliki added that the prisoners' demands were humanitarian, not political, and that their requests were for living conditions inside prisons to abide by international law.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement that the Palestinian Authority would continue to exert efforts to obtain the release of prisoners and put an end to their mistreatment in Israeli custody.

Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi said on the occasion of Prisoners' Day and the hunger strike: "We honor and pay great tribute to our prisoners for their courage, continued steadfastness, and commitment to independence and justice in the face of the belligerent military occupier."

"Since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip began nearly 50 years ago, more than 800,000 Palestinians have been kidnapped and imprisoned by Israel, and in the past two years alone, at least 13 discriminatory and racist laws have been enacted by the Israeli government that deliberately target Palestinian prisoners and are in direct violation of international law and conventions," Ashrawi wrote in an impassioned statement.

"The entire global community should be alarmed by Israel's willful breach and devaluation of the rights and lives of Palestinian political prisoners, especially in regards to the imprisonment and ill-treatment of Palestinian men, women, children, and the elderly."

She reiterated condemnation for the inhumane measures used against Palestinian prisoners, stressing that "Israel must not be given a free hand to systematically dehumanize the Palestinian people without any serious accountability or punitive measures." She expressed the PLO's full support for the hunger strike’s aim to bring an end to the policies.

Imprisoned hunger strikers, she said, "represent the most selfless struggle for justice and freedom in Palestine, and expose the criminality of the continued military occupation. Their nonviolent actions should be acknowledged and embraced by all members of the international community."

Ashrawi affirmed on behalf of Palestinian leadership its "unwavering commitment to ensuring the safe and unconditional release of all 6,500 Palestinian political prisoners," which includes 57 women, 300 children, 13 MPs, 500 administrative detainees, 800 prisoners who require medical care, and 18 journalists. According to the Palestinian Committee of Prisoners' Affairs, 65% of the Palestinians imprisoned in Israel are affiliated with the Fatah movement.

PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat also saluted Palestinian prisoners' endeavor.

"After 50 years of occupation, Israel must immediately fulfill the long overdue rights of the Palestinian prisoners and accelerate their release for the achievement of peace," Erekat said in a statement. "The Palestinian leadership will continue to exert its utmost efforts and urge the international community to put pressure on Israel to abide by and respect the rights of Palestinian prisoners enshrined in international law and conventions."

Amnesty International said in a statement ahead of the hunger strike last week that "Israel's decades-long policy of detaining Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and Gaza in prisons inside Israel and depriving them of regular family visits is not only cruel but also a blatant violation of international law."

Raed al-Husban, the deputy protection coordinator for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory said that the ICRC would increase its visits to hunger-striking prisoners to check on their health conditions and update their families.

The ICRC has become a secondary target of the hunger strikers, as one of their demands is the resumption of the second monthly visits for prisoners that were halted by the organization last year. The group was the target of protests last summer after implementing the change, while the ICRC has also been criticized for its perceived inability to improve conditions in Israeli prisons.

Al-Husban reiterated the ICRC's traditional stance of impartiality, saying that "we respect any detainee's decision to go on hunger strike, but we neither support such decisions, nor denounce it. As an impartial humanitarian mediator, we never put pressure on prisoners to end hunger strike, neither do we put pressure on the relevant authorities to urge them to respond to the hunger strikers' demands."

The ICRC official said the organization would not be giving comments to media during the hunger strike. "Out of the principles of medical privacy, we don't reveal in public the latest developments about the hunger strikers' medical conditions no matter how insistent media outlets could be."

After the hunger strike was announced, an Israel Prison Service official reportedly said that they would not respond to any of the prisoners' demands, while Israel TV reported that Israeli security has expressed fear of a "collapse in security conditions" in prisons during the strike.

Israeli Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan has reportedly ordered for a military hospital to be established to ensure that hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners were not transferred to civilian hospitals—which have so far refused to force feed hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners.

While the Israeli Supreme Court recently decided force feeding hunger-striking prisoners was constitutional, Israeli doctors have sided with internationally accepted medical ethics that regard the practice as a form of torture.

Palestinian prisoners' solidarity network Samidoun warned that it was "highly possible" that Erdan's field hospital proposal was "an attempt to impose mass force feeding on striking Palestinian prisoners outside the civilian medical framework."

From Ma'an News Agency, April 17.

See our last post on the Palestinian hunger strikes.