Hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli jails launched a hunger strike on Monday following a call from leader and senior Fatah terrorist Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian Authority official said.
Issa Qaraqe, head of prisoners affairs for the Palestinian Authority, said that “around 1,300 Palestinian prisoners” were participating in the hunger strike and the number could rise.
The Palestinian Prisoners Club NGO put the number at 1,500.
Israeli prison service spokesman Assaf Librati said that 700 Palestinian security prisoners had announced on Sunday their intention to begin a hunger strike.
“We are checking this morning to see the number of prisoners actually striking as some of them said they would only observe a symbolic protest strike and then resume eating afterwards,” he said. “There will be an update later.”
Barghouti is currently serving five life sentences for his role in murderous terror attacks during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s. He is a popular figure, with polls suggesting he could win the Palestinian presidency.
The hunger strike was called to coincide with Palestinian “Prisoners Day,” an annual event held in solidarity with the more than 6,000 Palestinian security prisoners incarcerated in Israeli jails.
With the annual event comes the concern of increased tensions in the prisons, and in the West Bank with Israeli security forces. Hamas, Fatah’s main rival, announced Sunday that its members would also join the strike, as did the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), another Palestinian faction.
On Sunday, Israel’s Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan claimed the strike was really over internal Palestinian politics and not a dispute over prison conditions.
“The strike led by Barghouti is motivated by internal Palestinian politics and therefore includes unreasonable demands concerning the conditions in the prisons,” Erdan said in a statement released by his office. “I have instructed the prison service to act in any way to contain the strike within the walls of the prisons and the Israel Police to prepare and provide any help needed to the prison service for any scenario that is likely to develop.”
The statement said a special prison service units tasked with quelling rioting and disorder had been deployed to prisons where hunger strikes were expected, and that stringent measures had been applied to prevent any unlawful communication between prisoners. It also said a field hospital had been set up next to Ketziot Prison to attend to any inmates who would require medical attention.
A power play
Barghouti began to call for a strike after talks between prisoners’ representatives and the Israel Prison Service on improving prison conditions reached an impasse. Those talks began more than a year and a half ago.
In a Sunday New York Times opinion piece, Barghouti claimed Israel’s longstanding abuse and improper treatment of Palestinian prisoners was the reason for the strike.
He decried Israeli courts as politically motivated “instruments of colonial, military occupation” and of committing “grave breaches” of the Geneva Conventions in its treatment of Palestinain prisoners.
But many Palestinians attribute Barghouti’s move to an attempt to send a message specifically to the Fatah leadership and to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who excluded Barghouti’s people from a recent Central Committee meeting and didn’t give Barghouti the position of deputy chair to the PA.
Among the demands from Barghouti and the prisoners are the resumption of a second monthly visit by family members (a benefit that was cancelled by the International Committee of the Red Cross due to budget cuts), the prevention of family meetings being cancelled for security reasons, and the restoration of academic studies and matriculation exams to prisoners. Other demands include more television channels being available in cells and cell phones in security wings.
According to sources close to Barghouti, the gradual increase in prisoners joining the strike is a planned step intended to prevent it from breaking early. But some have said that the fact that only about half of the Fatah prisoners announced that they would join points to a disagreement over Barghouti’s measure.
Barghouti supporters have also called for parades and demonstrations in the West Bank in support of the strike. Senior PA and Fatah officials have shown public support for Barghouti’s plan in light of what they see as reasonable demands by the prisoners.
Barghouti, the former leader of the Tanzim armed wing of Fatah and the founder of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, another Fatah terror group, was convicted in 2004 on five counts of murder and one attempted murder, and was implicated in and held responsible for four other terror attacks.
He has remained politically active from behind bars.
Avi Issacharoff contributed to this report.