Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas congratulated Palestinian prisoners in Israel Monday evening for signing a deal with Israeli authorities to bring an end to a mass hunger strike.
Abbas said the move was the first step toward ensuring the prisoners’ release.
Approximately 1,600 prisoners in Israeli jails launched a joint hunger strike last month demanding better conditions and an end to detention without trial.
The Palestinian minister for prisoner affairs said the Palestinian prisoners signed the deal on Monday afternoon at the Shikma prison in Ashkelon.
According to a Palestinian negotiator, Israel agreed to allow prisoners from both the West Bank and Gaza to receive family visits. The visits from Gaza were halted in 2006 after Hamas-linked terrorists there captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. After Shalit was released in a prisoner swap last October, the Palestinians said the ban should be lifted.
The negotiator said Israel also agreed to halt its punitive policy of placing some prisoners in solitary confinement, would allow prisoners to make phone calls to relatives, and permit prisoners to pursue academic studies.
There was no word on any change to the policy of administrative detention.
The Shin Bet security service said that, in return, the prisoners pledged “to absolutely stop terror activity from inside Israeli jails.” It also said militant group’s commanders outside the jails made a commitment “to prevent terror activity.” It did not elaborate.
In Gaza City, Palestinians cried for joy and praised God over blaring loudspeakers upon news of the deal. “God is Great! To God our thanks!” they chanted. Thousands waved the Palestinian flag, distributed sweets and prostrated themselves in gratitude.
“The prisoners have proved to the whole world that empty stomachs are more powerful than any ruler or oppressor,” said a spokesman for Gaza’s Hamas rulers, Fawzi Barhoum.
“We were on strike for a simple right: to visit our children. My dream was that Ali would be freed — but at least now I can see him,” said Nidal Sarafiti, a 64-year-old Gazan, speaking of his son, who has served seven years of an 18-year sentence for involvement in militant activity. He said he hadn’t seen his son since he was imprisoned.
The hunger strike successfully drew public attention, especially toward prisoners with deteriorated health. During the weekend thousands of Palestinians took to the streets to show their support and solidarity.
Earlier an Egyptian official said Israel also would soften its administrative detention policy, under which prisoners deemed a security risk can be held without charges.
Two men, Thaer Halahleh and Bilal Diab, have been on strike for over 70 days. Both are members of Islamic Jihad, a violent Palestinian terror group that has killed hundreds and maimed many more in suicide bombings, shootings and other attacks.
The Israeli Prison Service said in a statement Monday evening that throughout the strike, the fasters were under close medical care and received professional treatment as necessary, including check-ups and hospitalization. Upon conclusion of the strike, the medical monitoring will continue in order to prevent possible complications from an unsupervised return to eating.
Israel had come under significant pressure from the international community to find a solution that would end the hunger strike.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair said on Sunday that he was “increasingly concerned about the deteriorating health conditions of the hunger strikers.” Blair, the official envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East, said he had urged Israeli officials “to take all necessary measures to prevent a tragic outcome that could have serious implications for stability and security conditions on the ground.”
Palestinian terror factions warned that they would retaliate violently if any of the prisoners died as a result of the strike.
President Mahmoud Abbas told a West Bank rally on Thursday that if anyone is harmed, “we will not be quiet ever.” He did not elaborate.
(JTA contributed to this report.)