Inspired by the battle of empty stomachs launched in April 2011 by Palestinians languishing in Israeli jails, Egyptians likewise detained in Israel began their own hunger strike on 1 May as a means of protesting harsh prison conditions and attracting their native country's attention.
While the struggle of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel has succeeded in winning media attention and challenging the jailer – one example is Samer Issawi, who recently ended a nine-month hunger strike after striking a deal with the Israeli authorities – the dilemma of Egyptian prisoners, by contrast, remains largely overlooked.
Egyptian prisoners: Numbers, charges
Mostafa El-Atrash, one of many Sinai-base activists campaigning for the release of detained Egyptians in Israel, told Ahram Online that there are currently around 80 of them, most of whom face criminal charges in Israel for 'infiltrating' the country or smuggling drugs.
Al-Atrash, a member of the Sawarka tribe near the border with Israel, however, says this number includes at least 17 arrested due to 'security concerns.' He refers to these as 'political prisoners.'
Many have been in prison for years with no trial, Al-Atrash asserted, adding that the two oldest prisoners had been captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and are charged with espionage and posing a threat to Israeli security.
Notably, when Ahram Online spoke to an informed government official – who requested anonymity – he vehemently denied the presence of any Egyptian 'political prisoners' in Israel, insisting that all those detained had been arrested on criminal charges.
However, the same source put the total number of Egyptian prisoners at 78, adding that they were being treated "very well, because they're Egyptians."
Harsh conditions, state negligence
Al-Atrash, however, challenges this assertion, contending that Egyptian prisoners in Israel "face the worst possible treatment and conditions."
In April, Ahram Online spoke to Palestinian activist Ayman Al-Sharawna following his release from Israeli detention. He asserted that Egyptian prisoners were subject to the same torture and humiliation faced by their Palestinians counterparts.
"They treat them maliciously; give them harsh sentences. For the Israelis, that the Egyptians have came all the way to resist the occupation is a huge crime, even bigger for them than resistance by Palestinians," said al-Sharawna, who ended his eight-month hunger strike – launched to protest his illegal detention by Israel – on 17 March.
Speaking from Gaza, Al-Sharawna added that Egyptian prisoners were continuously complaining that they had been forsaken by the Egyptian government.
Saeed Abdel-Hadi of the Sawarka tribe in Northern Sinai, for his part, accused Egyptian authorities of deliberately refusing to acknowledge prisoners detained by Israel for supporting the Palestinian resistance.
"There are at least 15 Egyptians detained on security charges, which the country never speaks of," said Abdel-Hadi, one of whose relatives was detained by Israel for directly supporting and arming the Palestinian resistance. "But Egypt has no pan-Arab stance regarding the Palestinian issue. That's why it chooses to ignore them."
Ashraf Ayoub of revolutionary-socialist movement Yanayr in the North Sinai city of Al-Arish echoed Abdel-Hadi's complaint.
"Since the Mubarak era, the Egyptian regime has never cared about those working with the resistance," Ayoub said. "But we're still demanding the release of all our children; they can't remain in the prison cells of the enemy."
Al-Sharawna is credited for bringing the controversial case back under the spotlight when he spoke about it at a Cairo press conference co-organised by the Egyptian Doctors Syndicate in April. He revealed that there were over 65 Egyptians languishing in Israeli prisons, 25 of whom had been detained for 'security concerns.'
Syndicate member Abdullah El-Kirioni told Ahram Online: "We've sent letters to the presidency and foreign affairs ministry calling for their release and demanding the reasons and circumstances of their detention." El-Kirioni added, however, that their letters had been met with silence by the authorities, but that they nevertheless intended to "continue to press" for the Egyptian detainees' release.
"There has always been government negligence; the ministry of foreign affairs doesn't care, the ambassador doesn't care – they offer nothing but empty promises," said Al-Atrash.
He went on to voice disappointment in Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who he accused of perceiving detained Egyptians in Israel as "nothing but drug dealers."
Al-Atrash told Ahram Online that this negligence was reinforced by long-held misconceptions about the Bedouin of the Sinai Peninsula; misconceptions that intensified during the era of Hosni Mubarak, "who succeeded in alienating Egyptians from the people of Sinai."
"I swear that all Egyptians are convinced that in 1967 Bedouin tribesmen took Egyptian soldiers' guns in return for cups of water," said Al-Atrash, citing a claim that saw wide circulation.
Such ideas take hold due to the ignorance of Egyptian youth, many of whom "can't even find Sinai on a map," or the media, which "portrays Sinai as a war zone," he added.
He asked: "In such an environment, how can you expect the average Egyptian to understand the real situation in Sinai?"
Last year, a delegation of Israeli officials visited Cairo to negotiate a prisoner-exchange deal in which 65 Egyptians imprisoned in Israel would be swapped for captured Israeli spy Ouda Trabin, who has been held in Egypt for 13 years.
The anonymous official source, however, told Ahram Online that talks were no longer ongoing, stressing the unlikelihood of any such deal being reached.
Said Okasha, an expert on Israeli affairs at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told Ahram Online: "Tarabin is accused of spying on Egypt, which will never exchange him for criminal prisoners."
"I'm opposed to such a deal; Ouda infringed on Egyptian national security. A spy must be punished according to the law. It would be a shame if we exchanged our children – who committed no crime – for Ouda Tarabin,” said Abdel-Hadi.
He added, however, that the status quo could not continue forever, stressing that "Israel cannot achieve security at the expense of the people of Sinai or at the expense of Egypt's sovereignty."
Nada El-Kouny contributed to this report