It took 40 days of near starvation before 1,500 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails declared victory in their struggle for better conditions, ending their mass hunger strike this week.
It was on the eve of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting for Muslims, that lawyers from the semi-official Palestinian Prisoners Club (PPC) announced that 20 hour-long marathon negotiations with the Israeli prison authorities had reached an agreement, putting an end to the hunger strike.
According to Palestinian Authority (PA) prisoner affairs chief Issa Qaraqe, 80 per cent of the prisoners’ demands were met.
Palestinian lawyers involved in the negotiations said that the prisoners had been promised an easing of severe restrictions on family visits, which were in violation of international law. They include lifting a security ban that had prevented many families from visiting, and allowing bi-monthly visits.
Prisoners from Gaza who had only been granted permits for family visits once every two months can now be visited once a month.
The agreement includes a pledge for dialogue between the prison authorities and the prisoners to devise mechanisms for improving communication between inmates and their families.
Currently, when visits are allowed and families finally meet their incarcerated relatives, they are separated by three-inch thick glass barriers. Because no phones are allowed, both sides end up shouting to make themselves heard.
The mainstream Palestinian and Arab media broke the news as a victory for the prisoners. But because the agreement falls short of addressing the hunger strikers’ main demands, including ending the policy of solitary confinement and administrative detention by Israel, some have questioned the value of the gains compared to the heavy price prisoners had had to pay to get them.
Yet, who better than the prisoners to evaluate the value of the agreement after 40 days of refusing food?
“It is important to put the hunger strike in context,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer and former legal advisor to the PA.
“The only way the Palestinian prisoners ever got any rights recognised by the Israeli prison authorities was by going on hunger strike. In the past they happened simply so that prisoners could get mattresses, pillows, clocks and pajamas,” she said.
This was the 23rd mass hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners held by Israel since 1969. There are currently 6,500 Palestinian prisoners in 23 Israeli jails, including 57 women, 300 children and 12 MPs. Activists and Palestinian rights groups say that Israel has incarcerated one million Palestinians since the occupation began in 1948.
“Hunger strike demands are not about liberating prisoners. They’ve been forced to use their own bodies over the past 50 years to receive rights that are guaranteed by international law,” Buttu said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.
The plight of Palestine’s prisoners touches a nerve for the vast majority of the Palestinian population, who either know or have known someone held by Israel. Moreover, Palestinian prisoners are not thought of as prison inmates. More often, they are thought of as asra, or prisoners of war.
Since its onset, the present hunger strike resonated across Palestine, where protests, rallies, marches and even clashes with the Israeli occupation forces have taken place over the past 40 days.
The strike originally had 13 demands, including improving the communication of prisoners with visitors, improving health conditions, giving access to books, newspapers, clothes and food brought to prisoners during visits, ending the policy of solitary confinement and administrative detention, putting prison kitchens under the supervision of prisoners, installing air conditioners in prisons subject to extremely hot temperatures, and permitting prisoners to officially apply for diplomas and university degrees.
It is still unclear if the strike’s leaders, moved to solitary confinement in different prisons as a punishment and under pressure by Israeli authorities, will be returned to their original cells.
The strike’s most prominent leader, Marwan Barghouti, is still being held in an undisclosed location. According to his wife, he has been refusing food until he is moved to Haradrim Prison and is able to communicate with the strike’s leaders, she wrote on her Facebook page.
In a statement released 30 May, Barghouti described the measures he and other prisoners were subject to during the hunger strike, including confiscating all personal belongings, including underwear, and round the clock raids that deprived prisoners of all sanitary and hygiene-related items. Hundreds were moved to solitary confinement.
Barghouti described the prisoners battle as “a force to rebuild and unify the prisoners’ movement in its various components, as a prelude to the formation of a unified national leadership in the coming few months.” Prisoners from the various Palestinian factions, including Hamas, participated in the hunger strike.
Although the deal between the Palestinian prisoners and Israel addressed only a portion of the original demands, it forced the Israeli side to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians after it had originally refused to do so and had attempted to thwart the strike at its inception.
According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the negotiations took place in the Ashkelon Prison and had included Barghouti, one of those who agreed to end the hunger strike.
Barghouti, 57, is a former Palestinian MP and a senior official in Fatah, the ruling Palestinian faction. Israeli officials had dismissed the hunger strike as an indication of “inter-Palestinian fighting” that Barghouti had resorted to in order to boost his political profile as a potential future Palestinian president.
Now that the strike has come to an end, this narrative can be put to one side. But Barghouti’s popularity, already unmatched by other Palestinian leaders including PA president Mahmoud Abbas, has probably surged.
“Has this boosted Barghouti’s popularity? Absolutely,” said Buttu, the former PA advisor. “But that’s because the Palestinian prisoners as a whole have a lot of gravitas in society, as they’re the ones suffering most and living in a smaller version of the prison we are all living in now.”
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly.