After 103 days, Palestinian security prisoner Maher al-Akhras ends hunger strike

The West Bank dairy farmer was first detained back in July on suspicion of being a ‘prominent Islamic Jihad activist’; will remain in Israeli custody until November 26

Parliamentrians from the largely Arab Joint List bloc gather in Palestinian security detainee Maher al-Akhras' room in Kaplan on Friday, November 6, 2020 to wish him well on the end of his hunger strike (Credit: Joint List spokesperson)
Parliamentrians from the largely Arab Joint List bloc gather in Palestinian security detainee Maher al-Akhras' room in Kaplan on Friday, November 6, 2020 to wish him well on the end of his hunger strike (Credit: Joint List spokesperson)

Palestinian security detainee Maher al-Akhras agreed on Friday evening to end his 103-day hunger strike in protest of his detention by Israeli authorities, who have accused him of membership in a terror group.

“Maher al-Akhras has announced that his hunger strike has ended on its 103rd day due to a commitment that he will be freed on November 26th and his administrative detention will not be renewed,” Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi said in a statement from al-Akhras’s bedside in Kaplan Medical Center in Rehovot, announcing the decision.

Al-Akhras, a 49-year-old dairy farmer from Silat al-Daher outside Jenin, has been arrested several times for alleged involvement in Islamic Jihad, according to the Shin Bet security service, which maintains he is a “prominent Islamic Jihad activist.”

But al-Akhras denies current membership in the terror group and says that he is not involved in any “security activity.”

“They took me purely so as to humiliate me,” he alleged in a recent interview.

The Shin Bet declined to comment on the terms of the deal.

Al-Akhras was arrested under a controversial procedure known as administrative detention, which allows terror suspects to be held indefinitely without trial in renewable six-month terms. While detainees can appeal the detention itself to the High Court of Justice or lower district courts, the suspects do not receive formal charges, trials, or know the evidence against them.

Administrative detention is considered an extreme tool under international law, but Israel makes extensive use of it against Palestinians, as well as some Jewish Israelis, occasionally holding them for years without charges or a trial. Israeli security officials have defended the measure as a necessary tool to combat terrorist activity.

Maher al-Akhras before his 2020 arrest (Screenshot: Roya News)

Joint List MKs Osama Saadi, Ofer Cassif, Ahmad Tibi, Waleed Taha and former MK Mohammad Barakeh crowded around al-Akhras’s bed on Friday evening to wish him well at the end of his hunger strike.

“Maher has announced that he will end his hunger strike, according to the promise that he will be released at the end of the month and not be arrested as soon as his condition improves,” said Cassif in a statement, adding that he wished the detainee a speedy recovery.

The Hamas terror group also praised what it described as “a great victory for al-Akhras and for the prisoners’ movement, as well as for all of our Palestinian people.”

Al-Akhras refused on several occasions to end his strike unless Israel released him immediately. But he retreated from that demand as part of the deal he reached with Israeli authorities on Friday night.

Instead, the hunger striker reportedly received a pledge not to be re-arrested after his detention order expires on November 26; he will also be transferred to a Palestinian hospital in another 10 days.

The High Court had offered al-Akhras a similar deal in October, although the court did not propose treatment in a Palestinian hospital. Military prosecutors had already decided not to renew his administrative detention after November 26.

Al-Akhras rejected the deal, saying that he “stood by his demand for immediate release, adding that he would end his hunger strike if, and only if, he was released to his home and his family,” his lawyer Ahlam Haddad told the court at the time.

“If I agree to go home on their terms, can I really go home? At any point any Shin Bet officer can decide to simply arrest me again,” al-Akhras told The Times of Israel during an interview in mid-October.

His defense could not be reached for comment on the change in position.

Maher al-Akhras, a 49-year-old security prisoner, while on hunger strike in Kaplan hospital in Rehovot, October 8, 2020 (Aaron Boxerman/Times of Israel)

Palestinian security detainees often use hunger strikes as a form of protest, as in a prison-wide strike led by convicted terrorist Marwan Barghouti in 2017.  But al-Akhras’s hunger strike was both exceptionally long and exceptionally harsh. Other prisoners have taken vitamins, chewed salt, and accepted medical treatment to curb the worst effects of self-imposed starvation; al-Akhras refused them all.

“This is the longest strike of its kind that I am aware of. We’ve seen eighty days, even one hundred days, but not like this,” said Joint List MK Osama Saadi on Monday. Saadi oversees the prisoners’ rights portfolio for the largely Arab parliamentary bloc.

After tens of days on strike, hunger strikers can risk long-term damage to their vital organs. After the 75th day, they begin to die, Anat Litvin from Physicians for Human Rights told The Times of Israel. In recent days, according to the Palestinian Prisoners’ Commission, al-Akhras had begun to lose his senses of hearing and sight due to neurological damage caused by extended fasting.

When The Times of Israel visited al-Akhras in his hospital bed in Rehovot in mid-October, his health had already substantially deteriorated. Compared to photos taken before his strike, al-Akhras appeared gaunt and sickly. He complained of loud, rushing noises and winced and groaned when he spoke.

“His doctors told me, in as many words, ‘death is coming,’ Haddad told The Times of Israel at the time.

Al-Akhras’s case received considerable attention from both Palestinians and the international community.

Both Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and former Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal demanded that Israel immediately let him go. Islamic Jihad’s Quds Brigades, which has committed numerous attacks against Israeli civilians, said that it would avenge al-Akhras if he died from his hunger strike while in Israeli custody.

The United Nations and the European Union — both have long opposed Israel’s use of administrative detention — expressed concern over al-Akhras’s deteriorating health and called for Israel to either release al-Akhras immediately or charge him in a court of law.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry fired back in a statement on Friday that the EU was supporting terrorism, given that Israeli authorities suspected al-Akhras of membership in Islamic Jihad.

Palestinians protest in solidarity with the Palestinian prisoner Maher Al-Akhras, who is on hunger strike in Israeli Jail, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on October 10, 2020. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90

“It should be noted that the hunger strikes are being used as a political tool by terrorists, and by terrorist organizations. The ‘Palestinian Islamic Jihad’ is a terrorist organization recognized by the EU. It is extremely disappointing that the EU supports such a campaign,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

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