Intifada over prisoners?
Pressure is building on Israel as an open-ended hunger strike by thousands of Palestinian prisoners continues, writes Khaled Amayreh in Ramallah
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The mother of Palestinian prisoner Bilal Diab holds a poster of her son, who is on a hunger strike for 67 days. About 5,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel are on a hunger strike, demanding an end to imprisonment without trial as well as better conditions
With a massive open-ended hunger strike observed by thousands of Palestinian prisoners languishing in Israeli jails entering a "crucial phase", as inmates are being force-fed, Palestinian militant leaders have warned that the death of even one prisoner as a result of Israeli intransigence in face of the strike would trigger an all-out Intifada -- or uprising -- in the occupied territories.
The warning came from militant leaders affiliated with Islamist groups, saying the Palestinian people wouldn't allow Israel to break the will of helpless prisoners demanding simple human decency and a semblance of acceptable treatment.
Fatah, the ruling party in Ramallah, said it had no doubt Israeli failure to meet the just demands of the prisoners would "turn things upside down" all over the region, especially in the West Bank. "Israel would bear all the consequences due to its arrogance and intransigence, and we can't guarantee that there would be no violence," said Eissa Karaki, the PA minister responsible for the prisoners portfolio.
"The situation is really serious and the Palestinian main street is 100 per cent behind the prisoners," Karaki added.
The prisoners' demands include an end to notorious administrative detention whereby a given detainee doesn't know why he in jail or when he will go home. Other demands include an end to solitary confinement, allowing family visits -- especially from the Gaza Strip -- and a termination of night-time raids and other humiliation tactics.
The threat to trigger a new uprising should not be taken lightly, given the overwhelming popular support the hunger strike meets at the street level.
"This is probably the single issue that enjoys complete consensus among all Palestinians, irrespective of political divisions," said Ghassan Khatib, head of the Palestinian Authority (PA) government press office in Ramallah. "All Palestinians are behind the prisoners, and any mishap or death would provoke stringent reactions, I have no doubt about it," he added.
The strong warnings from the Palestinian camp came in the aftermath of the Israeli Supreme Court on Monday, 7 May, rejecting an appeal from Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahleh. The two have been on hunger strike for over two months. Their lawyer, Jawad Boullus, accused the Israeli court of "ill will and malicious intent".
"The court is simply telling my clients that they have to choose either open-ended incarceration in humiliating conditions or death," Boullus said. He pointed out that the two captives were in a "very, very bad shape," adding that the Israeli court's failure to meet their demands amounted to approving their execution. Earlier in the week, Boullus visited Halahleh at the Ramleh Prison hospital. He said he had bleeding in the stomach, lost much weight and was suffering from severe headaches.
On Saturday, it was rumoured that one of the two had succumbed to his prolonged hunger strike. However, the claim was soon denied by Palestinian officials. Meanwhile, the Israeli occupation authorities reportedly offered to release and deport the two captives to Gaza.
The brother of Bilal Diab, Azzam Diab, said he was surprised at the presence of jail wardens in his cell. He said they asked him to go with them to the Ramleh Prison hospital to convince his brother to agree to end his strike in return to deportation to Gaza. He refused, saying he wouldn't be used to pressure his brother.
Meanwhile, Palestinian leaders in both Gaza and the West Bank have teamed up to urge international governments to push Israel to end its cruelty against Palestinian prisoners. PA President Mahmoud Abbas said he was leaving no stone unturned in his efforts to enlist all international powers to exert pressure on the Israeli government to meet the just demands of the prisoners.
Speaking in Ramallah during a reception ceremony in honour of Chinese envoy to the Middle East Wu Sike on Monday, Abbas urged China and other "friendly countries" to help save the lives of the prisoners. He added that Israel should at the very least release prisoners detained before the conclusion of the Oslo Accords in 1994, as well as women and children.
Abbas also reiterated the PA stance with regard to peace talks with Israel, saying the resumption of peace negotiations required the freezing of Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank.
The Palestinian leadership has also asked the Arab League to raise the prisoners' issue at the United Nations. However, no dramatic results are expected from any such effort, due to the general weakness and preoccupations of many Arab states in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Despite its solidarity with the prisoners, the PA has been criticised, though indirectly, from quarters of the opposition for not "utilising all its cards for the benefit of the prisoners." The PA and Israel are partners in a crucial security arrangement called "security coordination". Israel would view the undermining of this arrangement so gravely that it would probably agree to relent with regard to Palestinian prisoners.
However, a decision by the PA to significantly reduce or terminate security coordination with Israel could also invite a severe Israeli reaction that might undermine the very survival of the PA itself. But even a mere threat to sever security coordination would sound alarm bells in Washington and trigger a sharp crisis which could enable the PA to demand a satisfactory settlement for the prisoners' problem.
On the other hand, as Israel gears up for an electioneering summer, it would be politically inexpedient for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to appear as caving in to Palestinian demands. Others argue that Netanyahu is too strong and too popular -- that a decision to meet at least some of the Palestinian prisoners' demands wouldn't affect his re-election chances significantly.
It is uncertain how the current crisis will end. But what is near certain is that the prolongation of the crisis, especially if coupled with the possible death of some prisoners, would significantly increase tensions in the region.