Palestinian prisoners halt mass hunger strike after Israel ‘ends punitive measures’
At least 1,000 Palestinian prisoners suspended their hunger strike on Thursday after Israeli prison authorities acquiesced to their demands to reverse harsh measures imposed across prisons for months.
The Supreme National Emergency Committee, which manages the prisoners' protests, said in a statement that Israel “realised that the prisoners are ready to pay every price for their dignity and rights.
“And that behind them stands a people and a resistance that is willing to pay all costs in order to support its fighters in the occupation’s prisons.
“That is why the enemy decided to stop its unjust decisions and arbitrary measures…and respond to their demands.”
The announcement came hours after the prisoners launched the strike as part of a series of escalating steps they have adopted since February amid the Israel Prison Service’s (IPS) continued failure to respond to their demands to reverse measures taken against them following the escape of six prisoners from the Gilboa prison in September 2021.
The punitive measures included limiting yard time, increased restrictions on prisoners serving long sentences - especially those serving life sentences who are put in solitary confinement - and the constant transfer of prisoners between prison facilities, which leads to a state of instability inside jails.
'We have witnessed violent break-ins into prisons, and an increase in the violence used to repress prisoners'
- Amani Sarahneh, Prisoners Club's spokesperson
The striking prisoners had formed the Supreme National Emergency Committee, composed of all-Palestinian factions in jails, to approve and manage protests.
“We are entering a new stage of confrontation with the jailer, by officially announcing the dissolution of organisational bodies in all prisons in a step of rebellion against the [IPS’s] decisions as a last stage before initiating an open hunger strike,” the committee said in a statement on Saturday.
The dissolution of organisational bodies was aimed at forcing Israeli authorities to deal with prisoners as individuals and not through the organisations representing them.
There are currently 4,550 Palestinians detained in Israeli prisons - including 175 children, 32 female prisoners, 730 administrative detainees, and 551 serving life sentences - according to the Palestinian Prisoners Club.
Prisoners started their action against the IPS on 22 August in various Israeli prisons, with steps that included refusing meals and security check lineups. On 29 August, the prisoners committed to wearing the IPS uniform at all times inside the cells and in the yards, indicating their readiness for a confrontation with prison authorities.
Strike for basic demands
Qadri Abu Bakr, head of the Palestinian Authority's prisoners' commission, told Middle East Eye that most of the demands are related to daily human needs that prisoners have been denied since last September, including electrical appliances, some food items and cleaning materials.
The demands also relate to the isolation of a large number of prisoners, the frequent and sudden transfer of detainees between prisons, restrictions on family visitations, and appropriate treatment for ill prisoners.
Abu Bakr said the Palestinian Authority had reportedly been working on shedding light on the issue internationally, while prisoners' institutions had also prepared solidarity activities that would be organised in most Palestinian cities.
The IPS had informed the prisoners that the measures taken had been decided at a political level and would be resolved there. However, despite the prisoners' continued demands, the Palestinian Authority has not shown serious movement to either pressure Israel or push the issue internationally.
Amani Sarahneh, a Palestinian Prisoners Club spokesperson, told MEE that the collective hunger strike was a continuation of previous protests taken by prisoners since September 2021, following the IPS's formation of a committee to punish prisoners, mainly those carrying out long sentences.
Since then, prisoners have taken a set of actions to rebel and disobey the new regulations imposed by the IPS.
“Lately, the IPS has stepped up its operation of transferring prisoners between cells and between prisons, and informed them of their intention to continue with these measures,” Sarahneh said.
Earlier this year, the IPS falsely promised an end to these measures, leading to the hunger strike.
Sarahneh said that the IPS's goal of moving prisoners to various cells and between prisons was aimed at breaking their organisational structure, limiting their stability within the prison and making it difficult for their families to visit.
“The prisoners of the Islamic Jihad movement are among the prisoners who face the most complications inside the prison, especially after the escape of the six prisoners in September 2021,” Sarahneh said.
Most of the escapees from Gilboa were Islamic Jihad members, which led the IPS to retaliate by imposing harsh restrictions on the group's prisoners, including isolating them from other inmates and transferring senior figures to other prisons.
“During the past two years, we have witnessed violent break-ins into prisons, and an increase in the violence used to repress prisoners... and we have a real fear that the repression will escalate in the coming days,” Sarahneh said.
Dirgham al-Araj, a former prisoner who spent 20 years in Israeli prisons, told MEE: "The goal of the hunger strike is to demand the restoration of minimum dignity by improving living conditions."
Araj was released from prison in 2019 and participated in several collective hunger strikes in prisons in 2004, 2011, 2012, and 2017.
Araj said that difficult living conditions in prisons were the main motivation that led prisoners to go on hunger strike, a strategic action only taken by the prisoners after exhausting all their attempts to negotiate with the IPS.
Araj added that after the Second Intifada, which lasted between 2000 and 2005, prisoners began to demand improved conditions, with the number of Palestinians in Israeli jails reaching 10,000 at one point.
Araj, a professor of the prisoner movement course at Al-Quds University, said that hunger strikes proved successful in the past when they earned popular support. He said that the 1992 hunger strike was the most successful, as it took place in all prisons alongside widespread demonstrations and marches in most occupied West Bank cities, which put pressure on Israel.
“Moving the street means a great economic and security cost to Israel and will put pressure on it in many ways," he said.
"Therefore only the Palestinian street is capable of making the prisoner strikes successful.”