RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli jails launched a hunger strike Monday following a call from leader and prominent prisoner Marwan Barghouti, a movement that could mark a serious challenge to Israeli authorities if sustained.
The hunger strike was called in connection with Palestinian Prisoners Day, observed annually, but also ahead of commemorations this summer marking 50 years since the 1967 Six-Day War and the start of Israel’s occupation.
A man holds a keffiyeh before flags of the Fatah movement during a rally in the West Bank town of Hebron to show support to Palestinians detained in Israeli jails after hundreds of them launched a hunger strike on April 17, 2017. (AFP-Yonhap)
Israel Prisons Service spokesman Assaf Librati said that hunger strikers would be disciplined and later added that Barghouti had been transferred from Hadarim prison to Jalami prison, near Haifa, 48 kilometers to the north.
Qaddura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club which tracks the well-being of Palestinians in Israeli jails, said Barghouti had been placed in solitary confinement, but Librati did not confirm that.
Hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners occur regularly, but rarely on such a large scale.
Protests were also held in Palestinian cities in connection with Prisoners Day, including one in Bethlehem that led to clashes with Israeli forces.
Barghouti’s call for the strike has given it added credibility, with the 57-year-old serving five life sentences over his role in the violent second Palestinian intifada.
He is popular among Palestinians, with polls suggesting he could win the Palestinian presidency.
Graffiti showing the iconic image of his cuffed hands raised above his head flashing a peace sign while being led away by Israeli authorities can be seen in the West Bank.
“Decades of experience have proved that 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,” Barghouti wrote in a New York Times op-ed. “In spite of such treatment, we will not surrender to it.”
Issa Qaraqe, head of prisoner affairs for the Palestinian Authority, said that “around 1,300 Palestinian prisoners” were on hunger strike and the number could rise.
The Palestinian Prisoners’ Club nongovernmental organization put the number at 1,500.
Librati said that some 1,100 detainees in several prisons had announced their intention to go on hunger strike.
“The prisons service has started taking disciplinary measures against the strikers and in addition a number of prisoners have been transferred to separate wings,” he said. “It is to be emphasized that the (prison service) does not negotiate with prisoners.”
Some 6,500 Palestinians are currently detained by Israel for a range of offenses and alleged crimes.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, in a statement carried by official news agency WAFA, “called on the international community to save the life of the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.”
Barghouti’s wife Fadwa told AFP at a demonstration in Ramallah that prisoners‘ demands were in line with “international law and recognized as part of human rights."
The last large-scale hunger strike was in February 2013, when 3,000 Palestinians refused to eat for one day in protest at the death of a fellow detainee.
Israel says it must be vigilant to prevent fresh violence, particularly following a wave of knife, gun and car-ramming attacks that erupted in October 2015.
Such incidents have greatly subsided in recent months.
While many Palestinians view Barghouti as a hero, Israelis point to the bloody suicide attacks of the second intifada and his role in the uprising.
For Palestinians, the prisons have become a stark symbol of Israel’s occupation.
Those on hunger strike have issued a list of demands, including access to phones, extended visiting rights and better medical care.
Israeli public radio reported that Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan has ordered intervention units to be put on standby and a field hospital to be set up outside one prison to avoid having to take sick prisoners to civilian hospitals.
It quoted Erdan as saying that the demands regarding prisoners’ conditions were unreasonable.
Some Israeli analysts have sought to highlight the rivalry between Barghouti and Abbas within their Fatah party, suggesting his call for a hunger strike was also related to internal politics.
Abbas made no mention of Barghouti in his statement on WAFA.
Talk of who will succeed Abbas has intensified, but the 82-year-old has shown no sign of stepping down and a recent Fatah congress saw him shore up his support base and sideline rivals.
He has not publicly designated a successor.
Of the 6,500 Palestinian detainees, 62 are women and 300 are minors. Some 500 are held under administrative detention, which allows for imprisonment without charges or trial.
Thirteen Palestinian lawmakers are also among the detainees.
Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts have been at a standstill since a US-led initiative collapsed three years ago. (AFP)