Israel Will 'Pay Heavy Price' if Palestinian Hunger-striker Not Released, Islamic Jihad Says

UN ambassador involved in talks with Israel to free Maher Akhras, who has been on hunger strike for 76 days. Israel claimed he admitted to being a member of the group, but transcripts show no mention of Islamic Jihad

Jack Khoury
Hagar Shezaf
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Maher Akhras is seen in a hospital bed in Kaplan Hospital, September 29, 2020.
Maher Akhras is seen in a hospital bed in Kaplan Hospital, September 29, 2020.Credit: Motti Millrod
Jack Khoury
Hagar Shezaf

Islamic Jihad in Gaza warned Israel Saturday that understandings between the Palestinian group and Israel will be gravely harmed if Israel does not release a Palestinian prisoner who has been on hunger strike for two and a half months.

UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov is mediating negotiations for Maher Akhras,Akhras' release, sources in Gaza said.

Senior Islamic Jihad official Khaled al-Batash said Saturday, “We are warning Israel not to make an error in their considerations regarding the prisoner Maher Akhras.”

Akhras, 49 of Silat ad-Dhar, a village near the West Bank city of Nablus, was arrested on August 7, on the basis of secret intelligence. He has been on hunger strike for 76 days, and has been hospitalized since Septamebr 6.

Akhras was accused of being a prominent member of Islamic Jihad, “who is involved in activity that endangers security in the area, incites and makes extremist statements.” Akhras has denied these accusations under questioning.

“If something happens to Akhras, Islamic Jihad and Israel will pay a heavy price,” al-Batash said. “Anyone who believes that calm with Israel is important must intervene and send a clear message that we will not abandon our prisoners to rot in jail and pay with their lives.”

Al-Batash called upon Palestinians in the West Bank to hold protests and ratchet up pressure on the Israeli government to release Akhras. 

Akhras' attorney, Ahlam Haddad, told Haaretz that she had visited Akhras in the hospital Saturday and that his condition had deteriorated. Akhras was moved to another room after a fellow patient was diagnosed with COVID-19. "It is deeply worrying given the state of his health and the fact that his immune system is severely weakened," she said.

On Thursday, the High Court of Justice rejected a petition to free Akhras from administrative detention on the basis of the state's stance on the matter. Administrative detention involves no indictment, no revelation of confidential evidence, and no trial or judgment of the accusations against the prisoner. Not even Akhras’ lawyers can see the full range of evidence and suspicions against her client, and these can be renewed every few months indefinitely.

The state had claimed in a closed-door High Court session that Akhras had been recorded boasting about being a member in militant Islamic Jihad organization, despite the transcript showing that he did not.

In Thursday's ruling, Justice Yitzhak Amit said that state prosecutors representing Central Command and the Shin Bet had said that Akhras had been filmed saying in his hospital bed that he was proud of belonging to Islamic Jihad – an organization that has perpetrated suicide bombings and other deadly attacks against Israel.

The same day, in response to the attorney’s request, state prosecutors handed over the transcript and it was found to not contain any reference by Akhras to Islamic Jihad. The transcript does quote Akhras as vowing to continue his hunger strike until he is freed or dies as a martyr, and he also called to protect the al-Aqsa Mosque and expressed a desire to worship there. The report about the transcript was presented at a closed-door hearing although the video is not classified material and has been circulated on Palestinian social media.

Haddad said that her client denies being a current member of Islamic Jihad and declares that he wasn’t involved in political activity during the period in question. “Israel claims he incites and has extremist views,” she said, “but they didn’t provide any proof, even when they were asked if he had incited on Facebook or if there was a quote of what he had said.”

“The only thing they asked me was about my meeting with friends who were jailed with me and had remained friends with me after prison,” Akhras told Haaretz. “I personally don’t know if any of my friends, whether or not they were in prison, were ever members in organizations. I told them, ‘If you know, arrest the friend you suspect. Do you have suspicions about me?’ Then they said, no, they have no evidence that I am a member of any organization.”

The Shin Bet said in response that Akhras was detained “on the basis of intelligence information pointing to him being a prominent member of Islamic Jihad involved in activities that endanger public safety, adding that in the past, Akhras was involved in terrorism and was arrested five times for his activism with Islamic Jihad.

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