700 Palestinian Prisoners Held in Israel Declare Mass Hunger Strike

Thousands of Palestinian prisoners have threatened hunger strike over past several weeks in campaign spearheaded by imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti

Protester shows solidarity with hunger striking Palestinian prisoners in the West Bank village of Bilin, near Ramallah February 19, 2016.
Protester shows solidarity with hunger striking Palestinian prisoners in the West Bank village of Bilin, near Ramallah February 19, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

700 Palestinian prisoners currently held in Israel announced the start of a indefinite hunger strike in prisons on Sunday, according to a statement released by Israel's Prison Service. Imprisoned Fatah official Marwan Barghouti spearheaded the campaign, though Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners held at Hadarim prison will join the campaign largely associated with Fatah.

The hunger strike is expected to expand Monday morning, with over 2,000 prisoners participating. Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah announced his support of the strike, as did leaders of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Qadura Fares, director of the Palestinian Prisoners Club and an ally of Barghouti, told Haaretz that the Prisoners Club, the prisoners and their families will work to bring the prisoners' cause to the forefront over the next few days. According to Fares, Israel could have prevented the hunger strike had it entered into real negotiations with the prisoners and not ignored the situation.

Nearly 2,900 Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel and affiliated with Fatah have threatened to launch a hunger strike over the past several weeks. Barghouti, the campaign's organizer, has often been floated as a possible successor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The fate of more than 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israel, whose number has grown considerably in the past 18 months due to the wave of stabbing and car-ramming attacks (the “lone-wolf intifada”), affects nearly every family in the territories. A hunger strike, if it is widely observed and well managed, could immediately turn up the heat in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. If down the road a threat to the strikers’ lives develops, it could lead to another wave of violence.

The April 17 date was originally chosen with an eye on the start of Ramadan, which is toward the end of May. A full hunger strike during Ramadan, when Palestinians fast by day and break their fasts at night, could be religiously problematic. Setting a potential strike period of a little over a month will allow the struggle against Israel to escalate, but also limits it in time so as to prevent a total loss of control. It also marks the annual Palestinian prisoners day anniversary.

According to the Israel Prison Service regulations, it is an offense for a prisoner to refuse his or her meal and the striking prisoners will be subect to disciplniary measures accordingly. "Prisoners who decide to [hunger] strike will face serious consequences," the Prison Service said in a statement. "Strikes and protests are illegal activities and will face unwavering penalization." The statement added that "In accordance with the policy set by the minister of public security, the Prison Service does not negotiate with the prisoners."

The prisoners drafted a list of demands approximately two weeks ago, which includes the revoking of detention without trial and solitary confinement. The hunger strikers also demand the reinstatement of a number of rights that had been revoked, in addition to demanding the installation of a pay phone in each wing, more frequent family visits and the possibility of being photographed with family members during visits.

MK Dr. Yousef Jabareen (Joint List) called on the government to meet the prisoners' demands. "The prisoners agree to have their calls monitored by the Prison Service, so that the alleged security reasons given by the Prison Service and the Shin Bet against installing telephones are void." He said. "Israel is holding prisoners within its territory, breaching the rules of the Fourth Geneva Convention. One of the immediate circumstances of this violation is a perpetual difficulty with family visits to the prison. The delivery of mail is also limited and hardly takes place. Keeping in touch with one's family is an essential matter for every person, free or jailed, and phone calls are supposed to fill this deficiency."

Last year, about 260 Hamas prisoners went on hunger strike for two days in response to the Prison Service dispersing the wings in which they were imprisoned, while 40 Prisoners of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) went on hunger strike in solidarity with the administrative detainee Bilal Kaed, who had been in captivity for 70 days.

Amos Harel contributed to this report