Around 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails launched a hunger strike on April 17, 2017, a date also known as Palestinian Prisoners Day. According to the Palestinian Prisoners Center for Studies, the strike was meant to protest the “difficult humanitarian conditions” inside Israeli prisons.
Al Jazeera reported that the prisoners’ demands included bi-monthly family visitation, increasing the duration of visits and installing public telephones in areas where prisoners are held. The ability of Palestinian prisoners to communicate with their families is severely limited due to their detention inside Israel, as opposed to the occupied Palestinian territories where the majority of prisoners resided prior to their incarceration. This means that family members who want to visit their imprisoned loved ones must apply for permits, which are not always granted.
Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera that the Israeli policy of holding prisoners from occupied territories within Israel violates the Geneva Convention.
“Palestinian prisoners are placed inside Israel as opposed to the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” said Shakir. “This is a crippling restriction on access to family and loved ones.”
Amnesty International also condemned Israel’s incarceration policy.
“Instead of unlawfully transferring prisoners outside the occupied territories, Israel must ensure all Palestinians arrested there are held in prisons and detention centres in the occupied Palestinian Territories,” the U.K.-based human rights group wrote. “Until then, the Israeli authorities must stop imposing excessive restrictions on visitation rights as a means of punishing prisoners and their families, and ensure that conditions fully meet international standards.”
The prisoners’ demands also included better medical care, permission to keep books, newspapers and clothing, and an end to the overuse of solitary confinement and administrative detention.
Several days into the hunger strike, a group of Israeli hardliners launched a counter-protest of sorts. About a dozen Israelis began barbecuing meat directly outside the prison, in the hope that the smell would reach the prisoners.
“At this moment [the hunger strikers] will smell the food’s scent and maybe later in the evening they will see it on television,” barbecue organizer Ofer Sofer told the global news agency AFP. “It’s a bunch of terrorists that are threatening us with a hunger strike. We are happy that they are on strike. Let them have the strike as long as they want.”
While it is unclear exactly how a prison hunger strike threatens anyone, Palestinian Prisoners Center for Studies spokesperson Amina al-Taweel told Al Jazeera that prisoners have a limited ability to bring attention to their plight.
“They have central demands and will continue to fast until they achieve them,” said al-Taweel. “The prisoners see hunger striking as the only door they can knock on to attain their rights.”
During the protest, prisoners consumed only water and salt. The hunger strike reportedly ended in late May 2017, 41 days after it started, when Israeli prison authorities agreed to allow two family visits each month; the deal was reached with the Palestinian Authority and the Red Cross. Around 800 prisoners remained on strike at that time, led by Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences for murder. Israeli officials claimed that Barghouti had broken the strike several times by eating snacks in his cell – allegations that were denied by his family and supporters.
“This is an important step towards full respect of the rights of Palestinian prisoners under international law,” Xavier Abu Eid, spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization, said after the hunger strike ended. “It is also an indication of the reality of the Israeli occupation which has left no option to Palestinian prisoners but to starve themselves to achieve basic rights they are entitled to under international law.”
Over 6,000 Palestinians are held in prisons in Israel due to offenses related to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Sources: www.hrw.org, www.aljazeera.com, www.telesurtv.net, www.middleeasteye.net, The Guardian, The New York Times
Originally published in Prison Legal News on January 8, 2018.