Israel seeks deal with Palestinian hunger strikers

AFP , Friday 11 May 2012

Israeli-Palestinian talks on terms to end a hunger strike by 1,600 prisoners - including access to education and removing most from solitary confinement - do not amount to real negotiations, says head of prisoners' group

Palestinians chant slogans during a rally in a West Bank village near Jenin, West Bank, supporting to Palestinian prisoner Bilal Diab, who is on a hunger strike to protest detention without trial, Friday, May 4, (Photo: AP).

Israel's prison service has offered to ease restrictions on Palestinian prisoners in a bid to end a mass hunger strike that has left several detainees close to death, sources told AFP on Thursday.

Just under 1,600 Palestinian prisoners are currently refusing food in a wide-ranging protest against solitary confinement, detention without charge and restrictions on family visits, education and various privileges.

The strike has drawn international attention, with the European Union and United Nations expressing concern. Two of those protesting, Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahla, marked their 72nd day without food on Thursday.

But an official with Palestinian prisoners' rights group Addameer told AFP that negotiations between prisoners and the Israel Prison Service (IPS) appeared to be making progress.

"According to what we have learned from the prisoners, there was a meeting last night in Nafha prison (in southern Israel) between the IPS and leaders of the hunger strike," she said on Thursday.

"There might be a positive response in the next few days," she added.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the IPS appeared to have "agreed to allow visits for families from Gaza," and to revoke a range of restrictions on prisoners, including a ban on education.

And she added that an agreement on moving prisoners out of solitary confinement was also on the table.

"On solitary confinement, in the meeting before this one the IPS offered to move all except for three out of 19 prisoners," she said. "The leaders of the strike refused, and said it's all or nothing. After the meeting yesterday, we have indications that IPS might have agreed on it."

IPS spokeswoman Sivan Weizman confirmed the Nafha meeting, saying it was part of an ongoing process of consultations between detainees and a committee examining prison conditions.

"There was a meeting at Nafha prison, but it's not the only one," she told AFP. "We are holding meetings with the prisoners all the time, talking to them."

But she declined to comment on specific proposals or decisions, saying the discussions were ongoing.

"I won't comment on the decisions that were reached. On the subject of solitary confinement, what was decided was that a committee would be set up to examine each particular case on its merits."

Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told AFP authorities "are interested in containing the strike and ultimately ending it as soon as possible."

"We don't want to see any of these prisoners hurt themselves," he said.

Israeli media reported signs of a deal, with public radio saying sources suggested the strike could be over "in a week to 10 days."

Haaretz newspaper said the IPS had offered to remove some prisoners from solitary confinement, allow prisoners to take classes and remove a ban on books.

It said there was no agreement on allowing relatives in Gaza visit prisoners, and disagreements remained about moving three prisoners out of solitary confinement.

But Qaddura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners' Club which tracks the well-being of Palestinians in Israeli jails, poured cold water on talk of a deal.

The discussions "are only exploratory rounds by the IPS, there are no real negotiations," he told AFP.

The hunger strike has widespread support among Palestinians, and demonstrations have been held in solidarity with the prisoners across the West Bank and Gaza.

On Thursday, around 50 protesters rallied outside the headquarters of the Red Cross seeking its support for the prisoners, while another 50 protested outside the offices of the European Union in east Jerusalem.

Meanwhile more than 150 Palestinians clashed with security forces near Ofer military prison not far from Ramallah, with some throwing stones at the Israeli troops who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, a military spokeswoman said.

Palestinian sources said a demonstrator was hospitalised in Ramallah after being wounded by a rubber bullet that hit his head and 10 others were lightly wounded from tear gas inhalation.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas also raised the fate of the prisoners during discussions with the UN's Middle East peace envoy Robert Serry, a statement from the UN official's office said.

"President Abbas and Mr. Serry both agreed on the urgency of resolving this issue immediately," the statement said.

Abbas also paid a Thursday visited to the solidarity tent for the hunger strikers in El-Bireh, near Ramallah.

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