Shin Bet Behind Refusal to Negotiate With Palestinian Hunger Strikers

Shin Bet head encouraging Netanyahu to take a tough stance over force-feeding at least 100 Palestinian administrative detainees on hunger strike.

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A Palestinian woman holds a photograph of a prisoner on hunger strike during a rally in Hebron in February 2015.
A Palestinian woman holds a photograph of a prisoner on hunger strike during a rally in Hebron in February 2015.Credit: Reuters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to negotiate with hunger-striking Palestinian detainees is based on the Shin Bet security service’s recommendation, Haaretz has learned.

Netanyahu has thus far opposed any compromise with the strikers, who are seeking an end to the practice of administration detention. He has also worked to fast-track legislation that would allow the striking prisoners to be force-fed.

There are currently 189 Palestinians in administrative detention, meaning detention without trial. Between 100 and 125 have joined the hunger strike that began on April 24. Palestinian convicts at several prisons have also joined the strike for limited periods as a sign of solidarity with the detainees.

In several discussions on the matter recently, Shin Bet security service head Yoram Cohen has voiced support for the force-feeding bill, saying it would be a suitable solution to the hunger strike. His stance encouraged Netanyahu to support the bill, which has already been approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and is expected to come up for its first reading in the Knesset in the coming weeks.

Cohen, who has been the government’s point man in dealing with the hunger strike, argues that Israel must not negotiate with the strikers. The Israel Defense Forces has warned that if any of the strikers dies, it would likely spark rioting in the West Bank and perhaps rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. But while Cohen has not said so explicitly, people who have spoken with him recently say their impression is that he believes Israel could cope with these responses, whereas he fears a compromise would leave it vulnerable to nonstop extortion by means of recurrent hunger strikes.

Attorneys representing the detainees say the message they have gotten from both the Shin Bet and the Israel Prison Service is that the organizations have no intention of negotiating with the strikers, and could not meet their demands even if they did negotiate. Abolishing administrative detention would require legislation and therefore is not within their power to grant.

But the Shin Bet opposes abolishing administrative detention in any case, as it deems the practice vital to the war on terror. Administrative detentions account for about 10 percent of all Israeli arrests of Palestinians. They are used in cases where an indictment would require exposing intelligence sources or where the evidence is not sufficient for a criminal case.

People who have participated in meetings on the issue with Cohen say he now seems to believe the agreement he negotiated to end the last major hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners was a mistake.

The deal that ended that strike, which erupted in April 2012, included three elements. First, leading terrorists who were being held in isolation were returned to regular wards in exchange for a written promise not to engage in terrorist activity from prison. Second, relatives of prisoners from Gaza were allowed to resume regular visits, which had ended after Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007. Third, Israel released five administrative detainees and promised to review the cases of all the others.

But the Shin Bet says the Palestinians violated that agreement. Just last week, it announced that over the past few months, it has discovered 11 cases in which Palestinian prisoners tried to solicit other Palestinians to kidnap Israelis and use them as bargaining chips to secure the prisoners’ release.

The senior prisoners released from solitary under the 2012 agreement, which was brokered by Egyptian intelligence, include Ibrahim Hamed, a one-time head of Hamas’ military wing in the West Bank, who is serving 53 life sentences for killing Israelis; Hassan Salameh, a Hamas operative from Gaza who was given 46 life sentences for two 1996 bus bombings; Abbas Sayed of Hamas, who masterminded a 2002 bombing in Netanya that killed 29 people attending a Passover seder at the Park Hotel; Abdullah Barghouti, a Hamas bomb-maker serving 67 life sentences for his role in several deadly suicide bombings, and Ahmed Saadat, secretary general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who was convicted of involvement in the 2001 assassination of cabinet minister Rehavam Ze’evi.

Meanwhile, the IDF has been preparing to cope with widespread Palestinian rioting in the event that one of the hunger strikers dies. It has not yet stationed any extra troops in the West Bank, but has reviewed and updated its operational plans. These plans set two priorities: preventing rioters from approaching the settlements and preventing them from blocking roads used by Israelis.

Jack Khoury adds:

Deep gloom prevails among the prisoners and their families due to what they describe as Israeli obtuseness regarding the hunger strike. Attorneys who have visited the prisoners were told that they have not received any proposal from the authorities to stop the strike.

“The growing impression is that the government is prepared to absorb the death of some inmates in prison to see what the result in the Palestinian street will be,” said Juad Bulus, the legal adviser to the Palestinian Prisoners Club.

“It’s sad that this is the approach of a government that refuses to deal with the prisoners and enter into negotiations with them. The prisoners are making a totally just demand – to either free them or try them – and I hope the authorities will wake up and begin talks that will bring an end to the strike.”

Many of the families are extremely worried about the deterioration in the prisoners’ medical condition. Some have already lost a quarter of their body weight and are suffering various physical ailments, like coughing up blood and internal bleeding.

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