Palestinians rally in West Bank as thousands of prisoners launch hunger strike
Large demonstrations were held in cities across the West Bank on Monday, as thousands of Palestinian prisoners launched an indefinite hunger strike following calls from leader Marwan Barghouti to resist what he said is "Israel’s illegal system of mass arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment of Palestinian prisoners."
Reports said some 1,000 masked Palestinians threw stones near the city of Bethlehem, while another 1,500 Palestinians rallied in Ramallah in solidarity with the so-called "Freedom and Dignity" strike announced Sunday coinciding with "Palestinian Prisoners' Day", an annual event held in solidarity with some 6,000 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.
No injuries or damage were immediately reported as a result of the demonstrations.
Issa Qaraqe, head of prisoners affairs for the Palestinian Authority, said Monday that "around 1,300 Palestinian prisoners" were participating in the hunger strike and the number could rise. The Palestinian Prisoners Club put the number at 1,500.
The Israel Prison Service (IPS) said that 1,187 prisoners were refusing food as of Monday.
Barghouti, currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for his role in deadly terror attacks during the second intifada (uprising), accused Israel of "inhumane" treatment of prisoners and "judicial apartheid" in a New York Times opinion piece published Sunday outlining the reasoning for the strike.
Hunger striking prisoners from various Palestinian political factions -- including Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and some members of the Islamist group Hamas -- have made demands including the installation of public telephones and televisions in prison wards, the resumption of academic studies and bimonthly visitations for inmates, and re-location to facilities in the Palestinian territories.
They are also calling for an end to solitary confinement and Israel's controversial administrative detention policy, which allows renewable six-month periods of detention without trial.
Israel's Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, however, said that the strike was motivated by internal Palestinian politics rather than a complaint on prison conditions, and called the demands "unreasonable".
The Public Security Ministry said that the IPS would not conduct negotiations with the prisoners, in accordance with prison policy, and that all prisoners participating in a hunger strike will receive immediate disciplinary measures.
Erdan has ordered intervention units to be put on standby and that a field hospital be set up outside one prison to avoid having to take sick prisoners to civilian hospitals, Israeli public radio reported Monday.
Hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners occur regularly, but rarely on such a large scale. Palestinian officials including Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip have voiced their support for the strike.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas's office called on Israel to respond to the prisoners' demands for "freedom and dignity."
Abbas called on the international community "to intervene quickly and save the lives of hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners," warning of a deteriorating situation as a result of Israel's "stubbornness and its refusal to comply with the just humanitarian demands of the prisoners."
Barghouti's wife Fadwa told AFP at a demonstration in Ramallah that the prisoners' demands were in line with "international law and recognized as part of human rights."
Arab-Israeli lawmaker Dr. Yousef Jabareen (of the Arab Joint List party) also called on the government to meet the demands.
"The prisoners agree to have their calls monitored by the Prison Service, so that the alleged security reasons given by the Prison Service and the Shin Bet against installing telephones are void," he said, according to Ha'aretz.
"Israel is holding prisoners within its territory, breaching the rules of the Fourth Geneva Convention. One of the immediate circumstances of this violation is a perpetual difficulty with family visits to the prison. The delivery of mail is also limited and hardly takes place," he added.
Barghouti has remained politically active behind bars, and is a popular figure among Palestinians who have tipped him among likely candidates to succeed 82-year-old Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The former leader of the Tanzim armed wing of the Fatah party and founder of the Fatah terror group the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that a hunger strike was "the most peaceful form of resistance available" against what he said is "Israel’s illegal system of mass arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment of Palestinian prisoners."
In his piece, Barghouti, who was convicted in 2004 on five counts of murder, one count of attempted murder, and who was implicated in four other terror attacks, characterizes himself as "both a witness to and a victim of" alleged Israeli abuses against Palestinian prisoners, including "mass arbitrary arrests, torture, punitive measures and severe restrictions."
He challenged the impartiality of the Israeli judicial system calling the courts "a charade of justice, clearly instruments of colonial, military occupation" and accused Israel of "judicial apartheid" by providing "virtual impunity for Israelis who commit crimes against Palestinians, while criminalizing Palestinian presence and resistance."
He called his own sentencing a result of "a political show trial."
The Times makes no mention of Barghouti's history, referring to him at the bottom of the op-ed as "a Palestinian leader and parliamentarian."
Barghouti further accuses Israel of "grave breaches" of the Geneva Conventions, writing that "Palestinian prisoners and detainees have suffered from torture, inhumane and degrading treatment, and medical negligence."
"Israel’s inhumane system of colonial and military occupation aims to break the spirit of prisoners and the nation to which they belong, by inflicting suffering on their bodies, separating them from their families and communities, using humiliating measures to compel subjugation," he wrote.
"After exhausting all other options, I decided there was no choice but to resist these abuses by going on a hunger strike," Barghouti wrote.
Of the some 6,500 Palestinian detainees held by Israel, 62 are women and 300 are minors. Some 500 are held under administrative detention.
The last large-scale hunger strike was in February 2013, when 3,000 Palestinians refused to eat for one day to protest against the death of a fellow detainee.
Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts have been at a standstill since a US-led initiative collapsed three years ago.
(Staff with agencies)
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