Analysis

Hamas Pressure Could Force Israel to Deal With Prisoners' Hunger Strike Days Before Election

The Palestinians expect a prisoner release that would follow the small-scale agreement under discussion for Gaza: an easing of the blockade in exchange for a reduction in violence along the border fence

Security prisoners in Nafha Prison in January 2019.
Reuven Castro / Walla

Against the backdrop of what appears to be progress in indirect talks between Israel and Hamas toward a long-term cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, differences of opinion have emerged over the issue of Palestinian prisoners in Israel. As far as is known, there has been no breakthrough in talks over a prisoner swap.

Frustration among Hamas prisoners is growing because of this, as well as because of the conflict with the Israel Prison Service over the installation of cellphone jammers in some prisons. The tension might increase next week because of the planned hunger strike that prisoner leaders intend to turn into a major showdown with the authorities.

>> Read more: Israel's concessions to Hamas are just a prelude | Analysis ■ Report: Israel and Hamas negotiating prisoner exchange as part of long-term calm deal

On Tuesday, Hamas-affiliated Al-Quds television said talks between Israel and Hamas included a possible prisoner release in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers and two Israeli civilians held in the Strip. Israel quickly denied the report. A member of the security cabinet, Intelligence Affairs Minister Yisrael Katz, called the reports “fictitious.”

In the past, there have been many mistaken reports in Arab media of a breakthrough in prisoner-swap talks. Such a scenario doesn’t seem reasonable now, in part because of Israeli politics. A deal right before an election would have to involve a massive prisoner release, and Likud would be roundly criticized for giving in to terror.

It must also be said that unlike the pressure during talks over the release of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit roughly a decade ago, no real public pressure has been applied on the government to make concessions in exchange for a swap.

In contrast, the Palestinian public and the prisoners themselves expect a release that would follow the small-scale agreement now under discussion for Gaza: an easing of the blockade in exchange for a reduction in violence along the border fence. The Palestinians expect this to precede a larger-scale agreement that has been discussed for after the Israeli election: a massive rehabilitation attempt for the Strip, perhaps as part of Donald Trump’s peace plan.

Along with the Al-Quds report, various reports are coming out in Arabic, apparently untrue, about an agreement with the prison service for an extensive easing of restrictions for prisoners and a removal of the cellphone jammers.

Actually, it seems the Public Security Ministry and the prison service are sticking to their plan to install the jammers and will expand it in the coming months. A violent incident, sparked by the installation of the jammers, occurred in late March at Ketziot Prison; two guards were stabbed and 11 prisoners were injured.

The prisoners’ anticipation of a prisoner swap, along with their anger over the jammers that have blocked all cellphone communications in the wings where they’re installed, have spurred preparations for a mass hunger strike to begin Sunday. The organizers are probably aware of the sensitive timing: two days before the Israeli election.

The previous strike, in May 2017, was led by Fatah members affiliated with Marwan Barghouti. The strike this time will be led by Hamas leaders in the prisons, who are considered more determined and ambitious, So this strike could be more belligerent.

The main concern about a major strike, especially one that involves refusing water as well, is the possible death of a prisoner, something that could not only affect the prisons but also spark a violent protest in the West Bank and Gaza. Like the question of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the problem of the prisoners is a key issue for Palestinian society. Prison-service and defense officials have met in recent days in preparation for a strike; scenarios haven been discussed including a rapid deterioration and the way to address it.