Thousands of Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza rallied Thursday in solidarity with Israeli-held prisoners.
To mark Prisoners Day, Palestinians took to the streets in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where president of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas has his headquarters, and hundreds took part in early rallies in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip late Wednesday.
In the southern West Bank city of Hebron, some 2,000 people marched, carrying photos of prisoners and waving Palestinian flags, and another 1,000 protested in the northern city of Nablus.
“We support our prisoners!” read banners.
Palestinian Authority security forces were unable to prevent the marchers from drawing close to the Jewish enclave in Hebron and dozens of demonstrators began throwing rocks at an IDF post in the area.
Israeli security forces used tear gas, stun grenades, and other riot control methods in an effort to push the rioters back.
The row over prisoners caused a new deadlock in US-brokered peace talks in late March, just a month ahead of their deadline, when Israel reneged on its commitment to release a fourth and final batch of Palestinian inmates. Israel refused to proceed with the release because the PA demanded the inclusion of Israeli-Arabs in the group, and because Abbas had not committed to continuing peace talks beyond April 29.
The Palestinians retaliated by seeking membership of several international treaties, breaking their own commitment under the talks which US Secretary of State John Kerry launched last July.
“Prisoners Day has extra importance this year,” said the Palestinian Prisoners Club head, Abdel Al al-Anani. “The prisoners issue has become one of global significance, since it is the reason that peace talks have almost collapsed.”
A one-day hunger strike was being observed by inmates to mark the annual show of solidarity with the nearly 5,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, PA prisoners minister Issa Qaraqe said.
Israel has so far released 78 of the 104 prisoners it pledged to free during nine months of peace talks, most of them imprisoned since before the Oslo Accords.
But it refused to free the final batch, using it as a bargaining chip to convince the Palestinians to extend negotiations until the end of the year.
The Palestinians demand their release before any discussion of an extension.
But Islamist group Hamas, which governs Gaza, opposes all negotiations with Israel and regards the Palestinian Authority’s meetings with its sworn enemy as “illegitimate.”
“We are sending a message to the Palestinian negotiators: Forget this farce, the futile negotiations, and come back to the resistance which freed prisoners,” a Hamas member said in a speech at Wednesday’s rally.
In June 2006, a group of Hamas and other militants snuck into Israel through a cross-border tunnel, seized Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and took their prisoner back to Gaza the same way. He was released on October 18, 2011 in exchange for 1,027 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.
According to Israeli rights group B’Tselem, Israel is holding 4,881 Palestinian prisoners, including 175 in administrative detention where they can be detained without charge for renewable six-month periods.
Of that number, 183 are minors, B’Tselem says.