Hours after Palestinian security prisoners called off a 40-day hunger strike, Israeli officials denied Palestinian claims that Israel negotiated with the inmates to end the mass protest or conceded to any of the prisoner’s demands.
Senior Israeli officials told Channel 2 that Israel did not so much as consider the prisoners’ demands. They also said the deal was brokered between the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Palestinian Authority, and was not the result of US pressure.
The deal announced Saturday morning will apparently see just one of the prisoners’ demands met: that their monthly visits from family members be brought back from one to two per month.
However, the issue of visitation is not an Israeli one. Family visits to Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails are administered solely by the Red Cross. Last year, the organization reduced the number of visits it coordinated, citing a lack of funds and little family interest in the initiative.
Prison officials told Channel 2 that hunger strike leader Marwan Barghouti negotiated the additional monthly visit in a phone conversation with PA Minister of Civil Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh. They said officials at Ashkelon’s Shikma Prison allowed Barghouti to speak with al-Sheikh and meet with other leading prisoners in an effort to end the hunger strike before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
According to the Israeli officials, Barghouti and the other prisoners agreed to call off the strike after the PA promised to pay for the additional visits, at an estimated cost of $6 million per year.
Israel Radio said a message had been conveyed to the prisoners that Israel would be prepared to discuss other living condition issues with them at a later stage, but not under the threat of a hunger strike.
The only person to speak to the prisoners on behalf of Israel was Yuval Biton, the head of the Prisons Service Intelligence Division, who relayed the Shin Bet’s approval for the additional monthly visit, the Israeli officials said.
The Palestinians had earlier claimed, by contrast, that negotiations were held directly between Barghouti and Israeli officials and that the deal was reached after 20-hours of marathon talks. PA officials claimed in a statement reported by the Maan news agency that the prisoners suspended their strike “after reaching an agreement” with Israeli Prisons Service in the talks. “The statement added that IPS officials announced the end of the strike after negotiating with Barghouthi, who they had consistently refused to speak with throughout the strike’s duration,” the Maan report said.
The Hamas terror organization sought on Saturday to paint a picture of Palestinian victory, congratulating the prisoners in a statement for “forcing Israel to surrender to their demands.” The group said Palestinian prisoners would remain at the forefront of the group’s agenda.
The hunger strike was initiated by Barghouti, a prominent Fatah terrorist and political figure on April 17. Barghouti is serving five life sentences for murders committed during the second Palestinian intifada.
Israel has all along refused to negotiate with the prisoners, noting that many were convicted terrorists and their conditions were in line with accepted norms.
But the strike has also provoked wide-spread solidarity protests among the Palestinians and in recent days there have been dozens of clashes with the IDF in the West Bank and Gaza.
On Friday some of the prisoners, who have been only drinking a mixture of water and salt, had threatened to join in the Ramadan fast too, abstaining from drinking during daylight hours. This would have rapidly exacerbated their condition.
Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners had been refusing food over conditions for about 6,500 Palestinian inmates.
Among their demands were access to telephones, more family visits, improved medical care and an end to punitive solitary confinement.
According to the Palestinian Authority, over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners reached their 40th day of the strike. Israel said the number was closer to 800.
Israel largely viewed the strike as having less to do with actual conditions and more to do with internal Palestinian politics, saying it was a strategic political move by Barghouti, who wanted to demonstrate his influence on the Palestinian street ahead of a bid to succeed PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
Nevertheless, Israel worked hard to undermine Barghouti during the strike, including planting a candy bar in his cell and releasing a film of him eating it.
Israel also released a handwritten note from Barghouti listing his demands in an effort to show how soft the demands were.
Among the demands Barghouti made were 20 channels of television, unrestricted books and magazines, air conditioning, a greater selection of items available for purchase in the canteen, family visits, the restarting of open university studies, public telephone use, and annual medical checks for prisoners.
On Thursday, Abbas asked US President Donald Trump’s special representative Jason Greenblatt to mediate over the strike, but there is no indication Washington was involved.