Palestinians shelve prison hunger strike amid ‘ongoing dialogue’ with Israel
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Palestinians shelve prison hunger strike amid ‘ongoing dialogue’ with Israel

PLO official says coordinated protest on ice while sides negotiate improved living conditions; security minister denies Israel willing to grant any concessions to ‘terrorists’

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: Palestinian prisoners stand in a cell, pending their release from Ketziot prison in southern Israel, on October 1, 2007. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit/File)
Illustrative: Palestinian prisoners stand in a cell, pending their release from Ketziot prison in southern Israel, on October 1, 2007. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit/File)

Palestinian security prisoners on Sunday called off a planned mass hunger strike to protest an Israeli crackdown on illicit cellphone usage among inmates, after reporting progress in negotiations with prison officials, according to a Palestinian Authority official.

Qadri Abu Bakr, the chairman of the PLO Prisoners Affairs’ Commission, told official PA news outlet Wafa that “dialogue was ongoing,” and that a final announcement about the coordinated hunger strike would be announced immediately following the conclusion of the negotiations.

Reports in Palestinian media speculated that an announcement would take at least a week.

Abu Bakr said the Israel Prisons Service has agreed to install payphones in the prisons, which will be manned by guards. He said the IPS has also agreed to release the prisoners being held in isolation over their involvement in recent clashes with guards and restore their family visitation privileges.

There was no immediate comment from Israeli authorities on Sunday, but Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan a day earlier strongly denied that prisoners had been offered any concessions to avoid the strike.

Public Security Gilad Erdan speaks at Besheva conference in Jerusalem on February 11, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Last week, the PA Prisoners Affairs Commission spokesman Hassan Abd Rabbo told The Times of Israel that Palestinian security prisoners would launch a hunger strike on April 7 to protest their incarceration conditions — particularly the recent Israeli measures designed to restrict cellphone usage by the prisoners, including the installation of jamming systems.

Hassan Abd Rabbo said that inmates affiliated with Hamas, Fatah and other Palestinian factions would launch the strike at Ketziot Prison, but that it would gradually be extended to include Palestinian prisoners in other Israeli jails.

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 on March 3. 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 the violent March 3 riot. Seven of the prisoners were airlifted to hospitals by the IDF, the Haaretz daily reported at the time.

The stabbings came a week after Hamas prisoners in the nearby Ramon prison torched 14 beds, setting a fire in the wing. The blaze was quickly extinguished and no injuries were reported. In that incident, too, prisoners were protesting restrictions on cellphone usage.

Israeli soldiers evacuate a wounded guard of the Israel Prison Service to Soroka Hospital in Beer Sheva, southern Israel, on March 24, 2019. Two prison service guards were stabbed by Hamas prisoners at the Ketziot Prison. (Meir Even Haim/Flash90 )

There has 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.

On Saturday, Erdan denied that the hunger strike could set off mass protests by Palestinians elsewhere, and denied any “deterioration” in the prisoners’ living conditions. Speaking at a cultural event in Kfar Saba, he said it was “a crazy thing that terrorists in prison can be in contact with terror groups.”

A Prisons Service official said over the weekend that 14 separate incidents of illicit phone calls meant to instigate terror attacks were identified in recent months.

Erdan said the prisoners were using the threat of mass hospitalization to extract concessions from Israel, 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.

On Sunday, the IPS said it would respond “forcefully and with determination” to ensure that the hunger-strikers were not successful in removing the jamming systems, and that it had beefed up security in a bid to prevent violent clashes.

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