Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan on Saturday said Israel would send additional medical personnel to prisons ahead of a planned hunger strike by Palestinian security prisoners so they would not “flood” Israeli hospitals.
The strike, which is set to begin Sunday, is meant to protest against the prisoners’ incarceration conditions — particularly recent Israeli measures to restrict illicit cellphone usage by the prisoners, which include the installation of jamming systems.
“We’re prepared to reinforce the medical teams in the prisons so that there won’t be a need to evacuate the prisoners and flood the civilian hospitals [with patients],” Erdan said at a cultural event in Kfar Saba.
“We are hoping that they’ll break before then,” he added.
Erdan said the prisoners were seeking to use the threat of mass hospitalization to extract concessions. He rejected holding negotiations with them and said he did not intend to “surrender” to their demands.
“This is the pressure that they are trying to apply. Believe me, terrorists dying from a hunger strike is the last thing that bothers me,” he said.
Erdan, a member of the ruling Likud party, denied there was any “deterioration” in the prisoners’ living and said it was “a crazy thing that terrorists in prison can be in contact with terror groups.”
He also dismissed the threat that the hunger strike could set off mass protests by Palestinians elsewhere.
Erdan’s comments came after sources among the prisoners said Israeli authorities had agreed to concessions in order to avoid the hunger strike. Israeli officials vehemently denied any such concessions had been offered.
There is concern that a mass hunger strike could increase military tensions with the Hamas terror group along the Gaza border, at a time when Egyptian mediators are seeking to secure a long-term ceasefire between the sides.
“It doesn’t matter if the public phones are under surveillance, because we only want to speak to our families,” a source said. “If there’s a payphone we don’t need to smuggle cellphones.”
Prisoners are also said to be demanding family visitations from Gaza residents and more TV stations in the wards. The source told the Haaretz daily that Israeli authorities had agreed to hold further discussions after next week’s election.
Erdan’s office strongly denied that prisoners had been offered any incentives to avoid the strike.
The row over incarceration conditions has recently sparked violence.
Twice last month, Hamas prisoners violently attacked guards at Ketziot Prison, with one guard sustaining serious injuries from a stab wound to his neck. Reports in Hebrew-language media said that in the second attack, inmates used shanks to stab guards as the prisoners were being moved between cells, sparking a riot in the prison.
The Palestinian Prisoners Club has said that riots at Ketziot sparked by the crackdown have injured over 120 Palestinian inmates since February. According to the group, Israel Prisons Service officials have completely isolated several prisoners involved in the riot in “very dire conditions,” stripping them of their personal belongings, family visitation rights and interactions with other prisoners.
The IPS said that 11 prisoners were injured and hospitalized after security forces quelled a March 3 riot. Seven of the prisoners were airlifted to hospitals by the Israel Defense Forces, the Haaretz daily reported at the time.
On Monday, the United Nations’ envoy to the region, Nickolay Mladenov, reportedly discussed the issue of Palestinian prisoners during talks with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in the Gaza Strip.
Israel’s Channel 13 quoted a Palestinian source as saying that Haniyeh warned Mladenov that the recent uptick in violence among prisoners could aggravate tensions with Israel.
Hamas officials reportedly asked Mladenov to intervene, and said that inmates were prepared to take unspecified measures if the Israeli “attacks” against them continued.
Erdan has called the recent violence “very serious,” and said it “proves once again that the prisons service is on the front line of the war against terror.”
Erdan vowed to continue jamming cellphones in prisons, saying that it was an important step in attempts to prevent “terror attacks being directed from within the prison against Israeli civilians.”