Deal to End Hunger Strike by Palestinian Prisoners in Israel May Be on the Horizon

Movement toward increasing family visits and behind-the-scenes talks suggest a way forward that would allow both Israel and the Palestinians to claim a win

Palestinians in the West Bank city of Bethlehem take part in a protest in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails, May 12, 2017.
AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

Almost a month after Palestinian prisoners in Israel launched a hunger strike, both sides are for the first time showing signs of willingness to strike a deal.

Avi Issacharoff reported on the Walla news site on Monday that senior Palestinian Authority officials met recently with officials from Israel’s Shin Bet security service, who asked the Palestinians to help them explore ways to end the strike.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan is taking a hard line on the prisoners’ demands. But a compromise reached with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross over the frequency of family visits might produce a breakthrough in these indirect negotiations, which Israel prefers to keep low-profile.

At the meeting on which Issacharoff reported, the Palestinian participants were Majid Faraj, head of the PA’s General Intelligence Service, and Ziad Hab al-Rih, head of its Preventive Security Service. His Palestinian sources didn’t divulge the names of the Israeli participants, and the Shin Bet declined to comment.

The Palestinians apparently told their Israeli interlocutors that they had no direct influence over the strike’s organizer, Marwan Barghouti, who is at odds with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his loyalists. But they urged Israel to end the strike by meeting some of the strikers’ demands.

Both Israel and the PA want to end the strike quickly because of U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to the region next week. The Palestinians have high hope for this visit. But should a crisis arise over the prisoners, with a striker being hospitalized or even dying during the visit, that could divert media attention to an issue the PA considers less beneficial for its purposes. Israel, for its part, fears being blamed by Trump for any deterioration, given the president’s recent dramatic change in tone compared to three months ago, when he was being described as the best thing that could have happened to the Netanyahu government.

Israel’s success in filming Barghouti sneaking food during the strike, just as it did during a previous hunger strike in 2004, this time mainly served Erdan’s efforts to promote himself to the Israeli public. Though the footage caused some Palestinian embarrassment, so far it hasn’t dented support for the strike.

Nevertheless, the number of prisoners participating in it has slowly declined. Today, about 850 prisoners are still striking, roughly two-thirds the number that began the strike.

Most, about 700, are affiliated with Abbas’ and Barghouti’s Fatah party. But that number comprises only about 20 percent of the approximately 3,600 Fatah members jailed in Israel.

Moreover, most of the Fatah members who are striking are from the area around Ramallah, Barghouti’s hometown, and of the remainder, most are from the Jenin area. Very few prisoners from the Nablus and Hebron districts, where the leading Fatah activists are Barghouti’s rivals, have joined the strike.

One of the prisoners’ main demands is the installation of public telephones in every cellblock so they can communicate freely with the outside world. This is a demand Israel vehemently opposes.

Nevertheless, a compromise is possible over another key issue. The striking prisoners were very upset when their family visits were cut from twice a month to just once a month. But that reduction had nothing to do with Israel; it was announced by the ICRC, which organizes the visits, about a year ago, for reasons of its own.

The defense establishment is therefore talking with the ICRC about reinstating the twice-monthly visits. That would be a significant improvement for the prisoners, and they might consider it enough of an achievement to justify ending the strike.

Erdan claimed in an interview with Army Radio on Monday that his hard-line approach to the strike is supported by all the security agencies involved in the issue. That may be what he heard from them in meetings he chaired on the issue. But behind the scenes, there are also other opinions.

Admittedly, the Israel Prison Service does share Erdan’s position. It argues that capitulating to the strikers’ demands (aside from on the issue of family visits) would lead other groups of prisoners, first and foremost those belonging to Hamas, to try to replicate Fatah’s achievement by calling their own hunger strike.

But some members of Israel’s intelligence community never bought the idea that the strike was unavoidable. And they think it’s possible to end it via a compromise that would require only symbolic concessions by Israel.