Palestinian Prisoners Begin Hunger Strike Despite Agreement With Israel

Source says strike launched after head of prison service's intelligence division refused demand to immediately remove equipment jamming cell phone reception

Palestinian security prisoners in Nafha Prison, January, 2019.
Reuven Castro / Walla

Palestinian security prisoners from Hamas and Islamic Jihad began a hunger strike on Monday despite previous agreements to postpone it.

According to media outlets in Gaza affiliated with Hamas, some 150 men imprisoned in Israel began striking. Hamas' Prisoners Ministry announced that the five inmates driving the effort began their strike on Monday evening. They are all prisoner leaders, high-status inmates elected by their peers, representing Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the PFLP. Four out of the five are serving life sentences, mainly for carrying out or planning terror attacks.  

According to the prisoners' announcement, the second wave of the hunger strike will take place on April 11, the third on the 13th, and the fourth on the 17th. More prisoners are expected to join the strike with each wave. Prisoners will not eat any food or drink water, which is expected to cause a rapid deterioration in their health.  

According to senior source among the prisoners, leaders of Hamas inside the prisons, led by Mohammad Arman, attempted to convince Fatah leaders to join the strike but were rebuffed. Hamas representatives thus decided to begin the strike in an attempt to capitalize on fact that Israelis head to the polls on Tuesday to vote in a general election. They also approached the head of the Israel Prison Service's intelligence division, Dr. Yuval Bitton, with a demand to remove equipment jamming cell phone reception in the wards, which the source said was not accepted.

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Other sources said Bitton had told prisoners that Israel would agree to place public telephones in the prison wards after the election and that every call would have to be pre-approved by the head of the Shin Bet security service. Arman refused this arrangement and told Bitton that the prisoners were launching the strike.

File photo: Ofer Prison was intended to house about 1,500 high-security Palestinian prisoners, January 22, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners Club, confirmed to Haaretz that the hunger strike has begun, and noted that the decision was made at the last minute, even though prisoners were optimistic through Monday afternoon. "We still don't know what torpedoed the conversation," Fares said, "but there are hints that the prisoners did not receive the Israeli commitments to implement the understandings and demands they raised."  

The strike was announced by Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners after a Palestinian prisoner tried to stab an Israeli prison officer at the Ktzi'ot prison in late March, a day after two other officers serving there were stabbed. As a result, the Prison Service raised the alert level at all of the facilities for security prisoners to prevent further riots. The incident also heightened tensions between Hamas prisoners and the Prison Service following the installation of technology to block outgoing calls from prisoners’ contraband cell phones.

The prisoners threatened to begin their strike on Sunday in protest of the cell phone jammers, but agreed to postpone the strike after Israel gave in to their demands, prisoner sources said Saturday, hours before the strike was scheduled to begin. Israeli officials denied that they had come to an agreement. 

According to sources among the prisoners, the Israel Prison Service agreed to remove the jammers, and a senior prison leader said that Hamas prisoners were able to speak with their families and Hamas officials in Gaza on Saturday, proving that the jammers are not operating.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan's bureau vigorously denied that jammers had been removed. "In light of false Palestinianreports I would like to make clear: The jamming of cellphones has not been suspended in the Israel Prison Service security prisons and no such suspension has been proposed!" Erdan tweeted Saturday night.

A senior figure linked to Hamas' prison network said last week that the hunger strike's ultimate goal is to pressure Israel to advance a prisoner exchange with Hamas.