Monday, May 14, 2012

Round One to Steadfastness and Unity

OUTSIDE Ramle prison, May 3, for those INSIDE
(Mahfouz Abu Turk / APA images)

PALESTINIAN detainees held in Israeli prisons have agreed to end a month long mass hunger strike held to draw world attention to their plight and demand just treatment from Israel. In what appears to be a victory for the prisoners' steadfastness and unity, they have obtained significant concessions in negotiations which the Israeli authorities were not keen to hold.

Prisoner representatives from each of the political factions agreed to the deal in Ashkelon jail, prisoners society chief Qaddura Fares said in a statement. Israel's internal security service Shin Bet confirmed the deal, the Israeli news site Ynet reported.

Many Palestinians are detained without charges or trial, under laws Israel inherited from the British colonial mandate. The hunger strike brought world attention to this, and brought prisoners relatives and thousands of sympathisers out to demonstrate in support. This unity across the spectrum also succeeded where the Palestinian Authority had not in forcing Israeli auhorities to negotiate with those to whom they said they would not talk.

Senior Hamas official Saleh Arouri, who was a member of the negotiations team, said Israel agreed to provide a list of accusations to administrative detainees, or release them at the end of their term. In comments to the Hamas-affiliated new site Palestine Information Center, he said that under the Egypt-brokered deal Israel agreed to release all detainees from solitary confinement over the next 72 hours.

Israel will also lift a ban on family visits for detainees from the Gaza Strip, and revoke the "Shalit law," according to the official. (The "Shalit law" restricted prisoners' access to families and to educational materials as a collective punishment for the five-year captivity of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in the Gaza Strip. Shalit was freed in October in a prisoner swap agreement).

Around 2,000 prisoners joined the mass hunger strike launched on April 17, demanding improved prison conditions, as well as fairer treatment. There was concern at first that not enough people were demonstrating outside the prisons, and that the Israeli authorities might remain hard-faced and ruthless in their willingness to see a human tragedy. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said on TV that there was nothing to be done if people were prepared to "commit suicide in the name of Islam".

In fact, as he well knew, this was not about Islam, and the demonstrations which did grow in sympathy with the prisoners drew support from all sections, including secular groups and Christians.

There was concern particularly for the lives of two prisoners who had gone on hunger strike ahead of the mass protest and by last week had gone without food for 77 days.

At this stage of a hunger strike, death can happen abruptly. Something can happen to the heart and this is the fear now,” said Hadas Ziv, public outreach coordinator at Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-I). If the political authorities will decide not to do anything and not to release them on grounds of medical condition,” she added, “eventually death may occur, if nothing happens in the really, really near future.”

On 7 May, the Israeli high court rejected an appeal by Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahleh, Palestinian prisoners on day 77 of their hunger strike. The two men were challenging the fact that they are being held under Israeli administrative detention orders without charge or trial. With no intervention by Israel’s highest court, Diab and Halahleh’s conditions were only worsening by the day, Ziv said.

Ziv said that the Israeli Prison Service has placed every possible obstacle in the way of PHR-I doctors who are trying to examine the hunger strikers. The organization had been forced to appeal to Israeli courts in order to gain access to the prisoners. The PHR spokeswoman said the authorities were acting on the wrong perception that if Israel isolates the prisoners it could win the struggle and it can break the hunger strike. “I think that this is such a short-sighted and horrendous policy and I think that if independent doctors, lawyers and family visits would have been enabled, one would have seen a resolution that could have saved lives.”

It is estimated that Israel has arrested and detained over 750,000 Palestinians since it began occupying the Gaza Strip and the West Bank including East Jerusalem in 1967.

It is not clear whether Diab and Halahla have accepted the prisoners' agreement, which includes their release at the end of their detention term. Their lawyer says both refused to stop their strike unless they were immediately released. A prisoners society lawyer Jawad Bulous is heading to the prison hospitals to discuss the deal with hunger-strikers.

PLO official Hanan Ashrawi applauded the deal and said it proved the power of non-violent resistance. "The Palestinian prisoners in facing the Israeli Prison Authority is a victory not only for them and their families, but also for the millions of Palestinians living in the occupied Palestinian territory and in exile," Ashrawi said in a statement. "The hunger strikers' courage is magnificently inspiring, and their selflessness deeply humbling," the official added.

She also thanked Egyptian mediators, the international community "and people of conscience worldwide" for supporting the strikers.

The prisoners' readiness to suffer and risk their lives has brought more world media attention to Palestinian peaceful protest than they are used to, perhaps because of its scale. What must be worrying the Israeli government now, as it heartens Palestinians and those Israelis who wish to see peace with justice, is that the steadfastness and unity shown in the prisoners' fight is an indication of the popular struggle coming in the "third Intifada". This may prove to be its opening round.

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