RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) – At least 250 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel have gone on hunger strike to protest their transfer to isolated cells, officials said on Wednesday.
The hunger strike, led by the militant Islamic Jihad group, comes amid heightened tensions in Israeli detention centers following the escape of six prisoners from a high-security prison last month. All six were picked up in a matter of weeks, but the escape embarrassed the Israeli authorities and was hailed as an act of defiance by the Palestinians.
Israel currently holds more than 4,600 Palestinians in connection with the conflict in the Middle East. Prisoners range from high-ranking activists convicted of deadly attacks on Israelis to political activists who participated in protests and teenagers detained for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers.
The prisoners organize themselves by political faction and have obtained concessions over the years through hunger strikes and other collective actions.
The Palestinian Prisoners Club, which represents former and current prisoners, said the latest strike was aimed at protesting the separation of Islamic Jihad prisoners into designated cells, isolating them from most other members of the group.
Qadura Fares, the head of the organization, said at least 250 Islamic Jihad prisoners in several facilities would take part in the strike, and 100 of them would start refusing water after a week.
He called for protests in support of the prisoners and said other Palestinian factions – including President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement – would also participate in the hunger strike.
The Israeli prison service said it was not aware of any mass hunger strike. He said he did not isolate the Islamic Jihad prisoners, but mixed them with the general population. He said the group was not happy with the move and admitted there had been “tensions”.
Five of the six escapees were members of the Islamic Jihad, and the militant group was the driving force behind the riots that broke out in some prisons as Israel tightened security and relocated prisoners to prevent further escapes.
Islamic Jihad has carried out dozens of deadly attacks over the years and Israel and other countries consider it a terrorist organization.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have gone through a military justice system designed for what Israel describes as a temporary occupation, now in its sixth decade. Almost every Palestinian family has a relative who has spent time in an Israeli prison, and Palestinians regard all prisoners as heroes of their national cause.
Israel says it only locks up those who threaten its security and that Palestinians enjoy due process in its military courts. Palestinians and many rights groups say the trials are inherently unfair.
Most of the Palestinian prisoners are from the occupied West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 war and which the Palestinians want to form the main part of their future state. Israeli settlers in the West Bank have full citizenship and are subject to civilian courts.