(MENAFN - Arab News) In what is probably the biggest act of defiance by Palestinians since the second Intifada 12 years ago, more than 2,000 prisoners in Israeli jails are now on an open-ended hunger strike to protest against unfair prison conditions.
Some of the prisoners have been on hunger strike for months and earlier this week the Israeli authorities transferred Ahmad Sa'adat, the general secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), from his solitary confinement in Ramon prison to Ramle prison hospital. Sa'adat has been on hunger strike since April 17.
He joins at least seven Palestinian prisoners who have been transferred to hospital prisons because of their deteriorating health conditions. They include Thaer Halahleh and Bilal Diab, who have been on hunger strike for more than 60 days. On April 17 it was announced that at least 1,200 Palestinian detainees have joined the hunger strike which has put Israeli prison authorities under public pressure.
The protesters, some of whom have been tried and sentenced while others have been under administrative detention for months and even years, are demanding an immediate end to radical measures such as the use of solitary confinement, the difficulty of securing family visits and the strip searches inflicted on visitors. Sa'adat has been in solitary confinement for more than three years.
The "battle of hungry stomachs" has gathered unexpected momentum. Palestinian prisoners have limited access to the International Red Cross and are frequently denied regular visitation rights. In addition there are hundreds of Palestinians who are held under the notorious "administrative detention" law which allows the occupation authority to imprison suspects indefinitely without charging them or allowing their lawyers to examine evidence against them. Appeals against administrative detention are usually dismissed by Israel's military courts. Only on few occasions did the courts work out a deal whereby Palestinian detainees on administrative detention where conditionally released. The latest was Khader Adnan who, after 66 days of refusing food, was finally released after agreeing to a deal. Before him the case of Hana Shalabi, who was under administrative detention, attracted attention when she went on hunger strike for 43 days before she was offered a deal to go into exile in Gaza for three years.
The case of over 4,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails has now caught the eye of international public opinion. There are a number of issues involved. For starters these prisoners are not asking for freedom but for their human rights under international law. They want an end to punitive measures that include solitary confinement, barring of visits from relatives and humiliating conditions in prisons. They want to bring attention to Israel's arbitrary use of administrative detention policies, a legacy of Ottoman and British mandate times. But most importantly they want to bring attention to Israel's consistent breach of international treaties including the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions on prisoners of war and protection of civilians under occupation.
Israel has been consistently rebuked, but never punished, for its human rights violations and breaches of international conventions. Few days ago the UN Human Rights Commissioner listed Israel among the countries that are restricting the activities of human rights groups. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Israel has been sanctioned by human rights organizations for repeated violations. It has been accused by independent commissions of committing war crimes in Gaza and elsewhere.
The plight of Palestinian prisoners has never received the attention it deserves. Now more than 2,000 detainees are sending a strong message to the entire world. There are numerous cases that call for attention by human rights groups. At least 300 Palestinian prisoners are being held under the administrative detention law. Some of them have been in prison for more than two years without charge and with no access to legal aid.
In addition Palestinian prisoners are protesting against the inhumane policy of solitary confinement. According to Shawan Jabarin of the human rights organization Al Haq the prisoners "want to be treated with respect and dignity; they want an end to middle-of-the-night checks, strip searches, humiliation and general ill-treatment. They are asking for humane treatment." Their case has been consistently ignored, but the general hunger strike is changing things.
Today Hamas and Fateh in addition to the Palestinian Authority and the Arab League have been forced to take action. The head of Hamas Political Bureau Khaled Meshaal has announced that he and President Mahmoud Abbas have agreed to take the prisoners' case to the UN General Assembly. Israel cannot ignore the implications of such a move.
But so far Israel has responded to the general hunger strike with defiance. The prisons' authority has retaliated by imposing more punitive measures against striking detainees. The mindset in Israel will not bow to local or international pressure. But the challenge of Palestinian prisoners is rock solid.
There is an immediate need by the international community and Arab states to support the humanitarian case of Palestinian prisoners. We are yet to hear a statement by an Arab leader supporting their honorable struggle. Their suffering today is a harsh political statement that goes beyond their immediate demands. It is important that Arabs and others mobilize to come to their support.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.