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After 40 days, Palestinians suspend mass hunger strike in Israeli prisons

May 27, 2017 10:41 A.M. (Updated: May 30, 2017 4:43 P.M.)
Freedom and Dignity strike: Some of Palestine's most high profile prisoners. From right to left: Marwan Barghouthi, Ahmad Saadat, Karim Yunis, Nael Barghouthi, Fouad Shubaki
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Hundreds of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons suspended a 40-day mass hunger strike during dawn hours on Saturday, after reaching an agreement with the Israel Prison Service (IPS) that reinstated the prisoners' family visitation sessions to two times per month, according to initial information from Palestinian leadership and IPS, with details yet to emerge regarding any additional achievements.

The agreements came on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, for which some hunger strikers had vowed to fast and forgo the salt and water mixture being consumed by the prisoners from dawn until sunset -- the only source of nutrients the hunger strikers were consuming.

Palestinian leaders applauded the prisoners' "victory" on Saturday, saying that the agreement represented an "important step towards full respect of the rights of Palestinian prisoners."

However, increasing family visits was but one of a number of demands hunger-striking prisoners were calling for -- including the right to pursue higher education, appropriate medical care and treatment, and an end to solitary confinement and administrative detention -- imprisonment without charge or trial.

The national committee formed to support the hunger strike has meanwhile said that more details regarding the outcome of the hunger strike would be revealed later.

While further information about the agreement has not yet been released, reports indicated that further achievements of the strike also centered on the issue of family visits, including access to more relatives including grandparents and grandchildren; improved communication, especially between imprisoned children and women and their families, and the installation of public telephones; easing security prohibitions and the frequent bans on family visit imposed by the Israeli prison administration, according to Palestinian prisoners' rights group Samidoun.

An IPS spokesperson told Ma’an that an agreement was forged between the Israeli state, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the Palestinian Authority (PA), granting prisoners the second monthly family visit, to be funded by the PA.

The move effectively reinstated the number of family visits that were formerly provided to Palestinian prisoners, before the ICRC reduced the number of visits it facilitated last year from two to one visit a month, a decision that sparked protests across the Palestinian territory.

However, the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society (PPS) said back in August 2016 that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had already approved a decision to cover all financial expenses for the second visitation session. A spokesperson for neither the PA nor PPS could immediately be reached for comment.

"It is appalling that it should take a 40-day mass hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners to restore family visits taken away by an international agency that should be motivated by the rights and well-being of the prisoners. Far from a neutral bystander, the ICRC was in fact a party to this strike and a participant in the confiscation of the rights of Palestinian prisoners," Samidoun wrote.

The group's report argued that, "This raises once again sharp questions about what really provoked the cut in family visits for Palestinian prisoners and the level of Israeli involvement in what was claimed at the time to be a mere financial decision, despite Palestinian pledges to cover costs."

Talks at stand-still until Barghouthi brought in at 11th hour

Head of the Palestinian Committee of Prisoners’ Affairs Issa Qaraqe and head of PPS Qaddura Fares said in a joint statement that the prisoners suspended the "Freedom and Dignity," following more than 20 hours of negotiations between IPS officials and prison leaders in Ashkelon prison, including Marwan Barghouthi -- the imprisoned Fatah official who has been the primary leader of the strike.

The statement added that IPS officials announced the end of the strike after negotiating with Barghouthi, who IPS had consistently refused to speak with throughout the strike’s duration, as hunger strikers had meanwhile refused to enter negotiations without the presence of Barghouthi.

The joint statement did not mention which of the hunger strikers’ demands were actually met by Israeli prison authorities.

A Palestinian source knowledgeable about negotiations elaborated to Ma'an later Saturday afternoon that the talks started Friday at 9 a.m. at Ashkelon prison, initially in the absence of Marwan Barghouthi.

At the beginning, representatives of hunger-striking prisoners were Ahmad Barghouthi, Nasser Uweis, Ammar Mardi, and Nasser Abu Hmeid.

However, the sources said that negotiations did not make progress until IPS agreed to bring in Marwan Barghouthi.

The sources said that after Barghouthi's arrival, IPS then "immediately agreed to some of the prisoners' demands" and promised to respond positively to them.

At 4:20 a.m. Saturday, a phone call was made between the imprisoned leaders of the hunger strike and officials from the PA and the Fatah movement outside of Israeli prisons, and after discussions, Marwan Barghouthi agreed to end hunger strike, the sources said.

The IPS spokesperson confirmed to Ma'an that Barghouthi was involved in the agreements that ended the hunger strike, but said that IPS was not considering the talks "negotiations," as they only reinstated a previous policy and did not provide any new concessions to the prisoners.

The IPS spokesperson told Ma’an that some 834 prisoners remained on strike to the 40th day, and that 18 prisoners who remained hospitalized would be returned to Israeli prison following the improvement of their health conditions.

The spokesperson declined to comment on whether any of the other demands were met.

The final round of talks came after Palestinian security officials and officials of Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, had reportedly been engaged in negotiations in recent weeks.

A meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and US President Donald Trump during Trump's two-day visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank also reportedly played a role in reaching an agreement.

Abbas also reportedly raised the issue with Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, during a meeting in Ramallah on Thursday.

Palestinians, UN, celebrate hunger strike's 'victory'

United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov said he welcomed reports that the hunger strike had been suspended. "I call on all sides to abide by the terms of the agreement and avoid similar heightened tensions in the future," he said in a written statement.

A spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Xavier Abu Eid released a statement Saturday by the "Free Marwan Barghouthi and all Palestinian prisoners' international campaign," saying that the hunger strike had “prevailed.”

“This is an important step towards full respect of the rights of Palestinian prisoners under international law. 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,” the statement read.

As the statement pointed out, the hunger strike was one of the longest strikes in Palestinian history and included a wide participation of Palestinian prisoners from across political factions.

“The epic resilience and determination of the hunger strikers and their refusal to end their hunger strike despite the repression and very harsh conditions they endured allowed for their will to prevail over the will of the jailer.”

Israeli forces had attempted to break the hunger strike through various punitive measures -- with the measures being repeatedly condemned by human rights organizations -- including putting hunger strikers in solitary confinement, “inciting” against the hunger strikers and their leaders -- most notably Barghouthi, and threatening to force feed the hunger strikers, the statement highlighted.

Scores of Palestinian prisoners were also transferred to Israeli hospitals during the hunger strike, with reports emerging that prisoners were vomiting blood and fainting. Palestinian leaders had feared possible deaths among the hunger strikers if their demands were not met.

The statement went on to thank all those who stood in solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners, particularly former political prisoners in South Africa, Ireland, and Argentina.

“The Palestinian people are a nation held captive, and the Palestinian prisoners are the reflection of this painful reality,” the statement read.

Spokesperson for the PA Yousif al-Mahmoud also congratulated the hunger strikers on "achieving their demands."

"Our heroic prisoners achieved a new victory in their legendary resistance," he said, adding that the government would continue its efforts to "guarantee that all Palestinian prisoners are freed without exceptions or conditions."

He also called for an end to political divisions in Palestine and to work on regaining national unity to support Palestinians.

Meanwhile, member of Fatah's central committee Jamal Muheisin and head of the Palestinian Committee of Prisoners' Affairs Issa Qaraqe held a press conference at Yasser Arafat Square in Ramallah to announce the "victory" of the hunger strike.

The national committee formed to support the hunger strike also released a statement saying that the hunger strikers had achieved a "legendary triumph forcing the occupation government to negotiate with the leaders of the hunger strike and Marwan Barghouthi after having refused to negotiate for 40 days."

The statement highlighted that the "epic hunger strike" brought back unity between Palestinians in Israeli prisons and revived the spirit of national solidarity, which has succeeded in "thwarting the occupation's plots."

The statement added that more information regarding the details of the agreement between IPS officials and the hunger strikers would be released later.

The Hamas movement said a statement that it "hails the incredible steadfastness of the Palestinian prisoners inside the Israeli prisons," in which "Israeli prison authorities had no choice but to succumb to the prisoners' just demands."

"This victory serves as an evidence that by unity, will, and steadfastness Palestinians can achieve even the impossible missions in their struggle against the unjust occupation," the statement continued, going on to thank families of prisoners, the Palestinian people, and "the free world" for showing devoting their time to solidarity actions throughout the hunger strike "to keep this humanitarian issue alive."

"Their efforts and support rallies drew the world's attention to the prisoners' ongoing plight, and revealed the ugly face of the Israeli occupation of being a blatant violator of the Palestinians' human rights," Hamas affirmed, adding that "the prisoners' issue will remain a core one, and the ultimate goal of setting them free will never be forgotten."

Palestinians imprisoned by Israel have underwent numerous hunger strikes since the Israeli army occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza in 1967, with several hunger strikers being killed during strikes owing to Israeli policies of force-feeding the prisoners.

Their demands have ranged from insisting on better quality prison food to ending torture in Israeli prisons.

According to prisoners’ rights group Addameer, 6,300 Palestinians were held in Israeli prisons as of April, most of whom are being held inside the Israeli territory in contravention to international law which forbids holding Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza outside the occupied territory.

While Israeli authorities label Palestinians as “security prisoners,” activists and rights groups have long considered Palestinians held in Israeli custody as political prisoners, and have routinely condemned Israel’s use of prison as a means of dislocating Palestinian political and social life in the occupied territory.

Addameer has reported that 40 percent of the male Palestinian population has been detained by Israeli authorities at some point in their lives.

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