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At least 1,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are on hunger strike in a growing protest movement that has captured the imagination of the Palestinian public. Daily demonstrations are taking place in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in solidarity with the hunger strikers.
The protest outside the West Bank's Ofer prison this past weekend is now familiar scene. For the past two weeks there have been daily rallies there, and across the West Bank. Some joke that holding the protests close to the prison makes it easy for Israeli authorities to arrest and detain them.
So far, 10 of the jailed hunger strikers have been hospitalized and two are listed in critical condition after maintaining their fast for 70 days. International organizations, including the U.N. and the European Union, have expressed concern that some hunger strikers are near death.
Demands For Changes
Bashir Idiab, head of the Palestinian prisoners' association in the West Bank, says that the hunger strikers have become a cause célèbre in Palestinian society because Israeli prison is a shared experience all Palestinians can relate to.
"The imprisoned Palestinians occupy an important role in Palestinian society. We see them as political prisoners," Idiab says.
Most Israelis aren't even aware of the issue, says Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for the Israeli human rights group Btselem.
"I think most Israelis aren't aware of how important the prisoner issue is in Palestinian society," Michaeli says. "For Israelis, even understanding what Palestinians think about these issues is a distant prospect."
Idiab, of the prisoners' association, says hunger strikes have been used by Palestinians prisoners since 1968, and have proven an effective tool for pressing Israel to improve prison conditions. He says the current group on hunger strike has a list of demands that includes more frequent family visits.
But the key demand is an end to administrative detention – or detention without trial. The practice allows Israel to hold individuals for six months at a time without formally charging them or revealing evidence against them. Many are held for years, as the six-month term can be renewed indefinitely.
Part Of Larger Battle
In February of this year, Khader Adnan gained international attention when his 66-day hunger strike led to his release from prison.
Israel says Adnan was deeply involved with Islamic Jihad, a banned militant group that has carried out numerous terror attacks against Israeli civilians. But no evidence was presented to back up the allegation and he was never formally charged.
Since his release, Adnan has made almost daily visits to a protest tent in Ramallah to rally support for the other jailed hunger strikers.
"Since I have come out of jail, my only objective has been to preserve the dignity and safety of prisoners who are still in jail," he says.
As Adnan walks around the protest tent, several people clap and all rise to shake his hand or kiss his cheek. He says he is pushing the Palestinian public to understand that the hunger strikers are part of a larger battle to change Israel's policies toward Palestinians.
"The hunger strike has to be for freedom, not just for improving the life [in prison]. I tell my colleagues who are still in jail, I came before you and gained freedom, I have a strong feeling you will follow me," Adnan says.
Sivan Weitzman, a spokeswoman for the Israeli prison service, says a government committee has been formed to re-evaluate the living conditions and rights of prisoners. But she says that the hunger strikers are only harming themselves.
"We don't directly negotiate with them. There are officials and a committee who deal with their requests and demands. And we hope in the coming days they will announce their findings," Weitzman says.
But most Palestinians are skeptical.
At one recent protest in Ramallah, many spoke of Mahmoud Issa, a Palestinian prisoner and former newspaper editor whom Israel regards as a threat to state security. He has only been allowed two family visits during the last ten years he has spent, mostly in isolation, in an Israeli jail. One of those visits lasted half an hour.