Palestinian hunger strikers win key concessions

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The hunger strike launched in April by more than 1500 Palestinian prisoners ended on May 27 when the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) agreed to key concessions to improve the prisoners’ conditions.

The announcement of the end of the 41-day hunger strike, coinciding with the start of Ramadan, was greeted with relief and joy by prisoners’ families and supporters across Palestine and the world. By the time the deal to improve conditions to end the hunger strike was struck, about 800 prisoners were still participating.

Conditions for Palestinian prisoners have always been harsh, sparking many prisoner protests and hunger strikes. However, this round of hunger strike was different in the support it garnered across Palestinian factions, as well as in the wider Palestinian community and international solidarity movement.

As well as the concessions won, these hunger strikes have achieved two things: attracted a growing base of support for the Palestinian prisoners’ struggle and highlighted how few tools of protest Palestinian prisoners have at their disposal.

The prisoners have won a range of concessions from the IPS. It remains to be seen if all concessions will be implemented, but they include several of the prisoners’ key demands over family visits.

The reduction in family visits was one trigger for the hunger strike. It came about as a result of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was no longer willing to sponsor a second monthly visit.

Prisoners are entitled to two monthly visits by family members. Yet the IPS had welcomed the decision by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to cease sponsorship of the second visit. This effectively meant that families no longer had the means to travel to see jailed relatives.

It is not uncommon for prisoners’ families to be refused admission to jails, even if travel and relevant permits can be arranged. Therefore, agreement on two potential visits per month is a positive step.

The Samidoun prisoner solidarity network said other concessions include reducing overcrowding and improving ventilation; allowing visitors to bring clothes for prisoners; allowing prisoners to share sweets with visitors, including children; allowing an annual photo with parents or spouse; better access to public phones; improved conditions for female prisoners; better conditions and access to education for child prisoners; and the provision of ambulances for the transfer of critically ill prisoners, particularly at the isolated Negev, Ramon and Nafha prisons.

Prisoners’ leader Marwan Barghouti called the strike marks a turning point in Palestinian prisoners’ struggles. In his statement on the end of the hunger strike, Barghouti said: “From now on and after today, we will not allow any infringement upon the achievements and the rights of the prisoners.

“In addition, this battle is also 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.

“This is in preparation for the battle to extract the recognition of the prisoners in the dungeons of the Israeli occupation as prisoners of war and prisoners of freedom and the full application of the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions.”

Barghouti acknowledged and thanked those who had shown solidarity during the strike — including international supporters. However, he stressed the importance of releasing Palestinian prisoners as a precondition for continuing negotiations. This is not something Israeli authorities are likely to agree to.

The agreement struck at the end of the hunger strike is not a total victory. However, it provides a path for further negotiations on “additional issues” at an unspecified later date — which puts Israel in an uncomfortable position. On May 30, Barghouti said the hunger strike would resume if certain conditions for the prisoners are not improved.

The prisoners’ negotiating committee, however, will not include Barghouti. His inclusion at all in the negotiations that ended the hunger strike was strongly objected to by the IPS, which denies it has negotiated at all or that it conceded any demands. The IPS disputed the outcome of the hunger strike in an Israeli cabinet meeting on May 29.

What is clear — even if the IPS statements are not — is that the hunger strike has won the prisoners much needed bargaining space. This will be vital in the months ahead if, as Barghouti insists, a new and united Palestinian leadership is to emerge.

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