Palestinian prisoners on long-term hunger strike agreed May 14 to a deal ending the strikes in exchange for improved conditions. The Egyptian-brokered deal to end the mass hunger strike in Israeli facilities will see the prisoners—including Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahla on a 77-day strike—released at the end of their “administrative detention” terms. Four hunger strikers will be transferred to civilian hospitals within Israel for treatment. Hamas official Saleh Arouri, who was a member of the negotiations team, said that under the deal Israel agreed to provide a list of accusations to administrative detainees, or release them at the end of their term. Israel also agreed to release all detainees from solitary confinement, to lift a ban on family visits for detainees from the Gaza Strip, and revoke the “Shalit law.” The “Shalit law” restricted prisoners’ access to families and to educational materials as punishment for the five-year captivity of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Shalit was freed in October in a prisoner swap agreement. (Ma’an News Agency, May 16)
Clashes, ongoing colonization on West Bank
Over 80 people were injured in clashes with Israeli forces near Ramallah in a rally commemorating the Nakba on May 16. After a mass rally in Ramallah, protesters headed to Israel’s Ofer detention center and the Qalandiya checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. Medics said 63 Palestinians were injured outside Ofer prison and 21 were hurt at Qalandiya as Israeli forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters. (Ma’an News Agency, May 16)
The Palestinian Authority Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed a European Union Foreign Affairs Council report on the West Bank.The report said Israeli settlement building and curbs on economic development in the occupied territory risked wrecking Palestinian hopes of creating their own state. The statement by European foreign ministers accused Israel of accelerating settlement construction and tightening its control over East Jerusalem at the expense of Palestinians.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry’s Hassan Balawi said: “We strongly believe that resolving the conflict based on the relevant UN Security Council Resolutions, the Madrid principles including land for peace, the Roadmap, the agreements concluded by the parties and the Arab Peace Initiative is in the best interest of the entire region and the world at large.” He added: “The Palestinian Authority remains committed to the two-state solution based on the above-mentioned terms of reference. We continue to call on our neighbors to reciprocate such commitment in order to advance a substantive peace process and negotiations in good faith. We reiterate our commitments to ensure peace and security through ending a conflict that inflicts pain and destruction on both sides.”
He also commented on Palestinian incitement, which was addressed in the report. “We recognize that incitement is a concern as we have lately been exposed to all kinds of incitement and violence; therefore we call upon the EU and Israel to reactivate the Anti-Incitement Trilateral Committee to ensure that such acts are prohibited on all sides. In this regard, we have requested several times through international dignitaries to revive the work of the committee and were met by an Israeli rejection.”
Israel, meanwhile, dismissed most of the report which it called a “partial, biased and one-sided depiction of realities on the ground. Such a public presentation does not contribute to advance the peace process.” Israel is “committed to the well-being of the Palestinian population and acts according to all international conventions” but decisions must be coordinated “in conformity with local urban master plans and with the law.” The Israeli Foreign Ministry took note of the EU’s consideration of security needs, calls to renew negotiations, and condemnation of rocket fire from Gaza as well as “continued Palestinian incitement against Israel.” (Ma’an News Agency, May 16; Ha’aretz, May 13)
Apartheid wall threatens Roman-era canals
One of the last Palestinian farming villages that still uses irrigation systems from Roman times says its ancient way of life is in danger as Israel prepares to extend its West Bank separation barrier. With construction set to begin in the coming weeks, the people of Battir hope a legal battle—backed by recent UN recognition of the village’s agricultural practices—will call a halt to the wall’s expansion.
Battir’s 6,000 inhabitants live in limestone-faced houses built into a hillside southwest of Jerusalem. On village lands, stone retaining walls have transformed scrubby hills into terraces of olive trees and vegetable gardens, watered by a centuries-old network of irrigation canals that channel springwater over the stepped hills. UNESCO last year awarded the village with a $15,000 prize for “Safeguarding and Management of Cultural Landscapes.” The canal network has been in place for 2,000 years, with residents continually keeping up the system, said local UNESCO official Giovanni Fontana-Antonelli. “The wall as projected so far will interfere with this ancient irrigation system by cutting part of the irrigation network,” he said of the planned path for Israel’s barrier. The integrity of the terraces “will be totally dismantled.” (Time, May 11)
Tear gas on Gaza border; siege eased
Some 25 Palestinians were injured by what appeared to be tear gas fired by Israel near Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza on May 16. A local medic said 25 people arrived in Beit Hanoun hospital “unconscious” after Israeli forces fired tear gas toward farmers and houses close to the border. Others described the explosives as having a foul smell and and unusual color. An Israeli military spokeswoman said “riot dispersal means were placed adjacent to Erez crossing” and later detonated. She said they were placed in an area distant to population centers. The setup appeared to be part of preparations to meet demonstrators expected to arrive during Nakba commemorations. (Ma’an News Agency, May 16)
On March 5, for the first time in five years, Israel allowed sale of goods from Gaza to the West Bank. Two trucks carrying date bars traveled from Gaza to the West Bank as part of an initiative by the World Food Program to feed Palestinian schoolchildren. The permission, for 13 trucks in total, was the first exception to a sweeping ban, imposed by Israel in June 2007, on transferring goods from Gaza to markets in Israel and the West Bank.
The ban on selling goods to Israel and the West Bank, where 85% of Gaza’s outgoing goods were sold prior to 2007, has contributed to the collapse of Gaza’s economy. Approximately 83% of Gaza’s factories are idle or operating at 50% or less capacity, because their natural markets are blocked. Since the start of the year, Israel had allowed an average of two truckloads of goods to leave Gaza each day, compared with 86 truckloads per day in the first half of 2007. Until the March shipment, all export was limited to markets abroad, where demand is low and transportation costs are high. Export from Gaza takes place via Kerem Shalom, the only one of Gaza’s four commercial crossings that Israel has not closed. Permission was granted to the WFP after six months of negotiations with the Israeli authorities. (Gisha, March 5)