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Israel gives in to hunger strikers' demands as Palestinian prisoners call off protest

The deal was brokered by the Red Cross.

Image: Nur Photo SIPA USA/PA Images

HUNDREDS OF PALESTINIAN prisoners in Israeli jails on hunger strike since 17 April have ended their mass protest under a deal brokered by the Red Cross, Palestinian and Israeli sources said today.

Some 30 of the more than 800 hunger strikers had been hospitalised in recent days, raising fears of an escalation of clashes with Israeli security forces in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinian analysts hailed the deal as a victory for the hunger strikers after Israeli authorities repeatedly vowed not to negotiate with convicted “terrorists”.

Palestinian Authority prisoners’ affair chief Issa Qaraqe said it had come after some 20 hours of talks between Israeli officials and strike leader Marwan Barghouti, a figure revered among Palestinians but reviled by many Israelis.

An Israel Prisons Service spokeswoman confirmed the hunger strike was over but said the deal had not been reached with prisoners’ representatives but with the Palestinian Authority and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Israeli authorities conceded to one of the prisoners’ main demands – that they should have two family visits a month instead of the one they were entitled to before the strike, the spokeswoman said.

The ICRC had warned on Thursday that its doctors who have been visiting the prisoners were concerned about “potential irreversible health consequences”.

Start of Ramadan

ICRC spokesman Jesus Serrano welcomed Saturday’s end of the strike and said it would do all it could to facilitate the additional visits.

The resolution of the strike coincided with the start of the Muslim dawn-to-dusk fasting month of Ramadan.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas had urged US counterpart Donald Trump to raise the issue with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to the region earlier this week.

He raised the issue again with Trump envoy Jason Greenblatt in a meeting at his headquarters in Ramallah on Thursday.

Demonstrations in support of the prisoners had been held across the West Bank, leading to repeated bloody clashes with Israeli security forces.

They come as the 50th anniversary nears of Israel’s seizure of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, in the Six-Day War.

The hunger strike was led by Barghouti, a prominent figure in his Fatah movement leader revered by many Palestinians in contrast to the increasingly unpopular president.

‘Palestinian Mandela’

Dubbed the “Palestinian Mandela” by supporters, Barghouti is serving five life sentences on charges of involvement in murders committed during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, that have made him a hate figure for many on the Israeli right.

Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan had vowed there would be no negotiations with the hunger strikers, calling them “terrorists and incarcerated murderers.”

But the Palestinian Authority’s Qaraqe said Israeli officials had held some 20 hours of negotiations with Barghouti to end the strike.

Barghouti was moved to solitary confinement and received a single reported visit by the ICRC to check on his condition on 11 May.

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On 7 May, the Israel’s prison authority had shared video of what it said was Barghouti eating biscuits in a break from the strike.

But his wife Fadwa dismissed the footage as a “fake… intended to break the morale of prisoners” and called on Pope Francis to intervene.

Palestinian analysts hailed the deal as a victory for the hunger strikers.

“It is very likely that the United States was directly involved in the discussions,” said one analyst, Hani al-Masri.

Abdel Majid Sweenem welcomed the fact that the Israeli authorities had been forced to negotiate with prisoner representatives after trying to avoid doing so at all costs.

“But we still have to see if Israel will respect its commitments,” he warned.

Hours before Trump’s arrival on his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories on Monday and Tuesday, the Israeli cabinet approved a rare package of confidence building measures aimed at improving the Palestinian economy and easing housing construction.

The decision, which Israel said was at the request of the US, was bitterly opposed by Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.

- © AFP, 2017

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