Despite a lack of interest among Israelis, the hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners entered its 35th day on Sunday. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan hasn’t tried to resolve the strike through negotiations with the prisoners over their demands. Instead he has tried to break the strikers and end the action by force.
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Erdan has been threatening to force-feed the strikers. He has stuck by this approach even though the Israel Medical Association has said it will refuse to carry out force-feeding. Erdan is even willing to bring in doctors from abroad for this purpose. At the same time, he is trying to break the strikers’ morale and encourage infighting among their leaders, as reflected in the Tortit candy bar that Marwan Barghouti was filmed furtively eating in his cell.
Such efforts have failed. Now it appears that the nonviolent protests have spread beyond the prison walls to the Palestinian street, but violently. If the government doesn’t quickly come to its senses and find a way to deal with the strike, hundreds of prisoners could die. About 850 prisoners are currently striking and their health continues to decline.
Force-feeding is an indecent practice that violates medical ethics. Some people view it as torture in every respect. In addition, if the prisoners’ condition continues to decline and they require hospital care, there will be a shortage of beds and expected shortages of medical and security staff.
Until very recently, support for the strike on the Palestinian street has been expressed through demonstrations and protest marches. Now when there is increasing concern over lives lost, attempts to express solidarity with the prisoners have taken on a violent cast in the form of a general civil protest. Since Wednesday, clashes have erupted between the security forces and hundreds of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The clashes are exceptional in the number of places they have occurred, the number of people who have taken part and the number of casualties.
One should learn from experience and not wait until we witness the needless deaths of prisoners and demonstrators or an overall escalation by Palestinian protesters before agreeing to negotiate with the prisoners. Some Israeli intelligence officials believe that the crisis can be resolved through a compromise that would include symbolic concessions.
Erdan should listen to them and immediately launch talks with the strikers’ leaders. After all, most of their demands are minor, relating only to the conditions of their imprisonment.
Rather than demanding release from jail, they are, for example, asking for phones to be installed in prisoner wings so they can speak with their families while supervised. They also want a relaxation of family visitation policy, permission to register for academic study and matriculation exams, a solution to cell overcrowding, the installation of air conditioners, and routine annual medical exams for all prisoners.
Is it in Israel’s interest to descend into a third intifada instead of listening to the prisoners?
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.