BEIRUT: Israeli authorities bowed to pressure from Palestinian detainees on hunger strike for over a month and agreed to a package of reforms likely to dramatically improve quality of life in prisons, a deal hailed by Palestinian groups and family members of strikers.
“I feel overwhelming happiness. I can’t seem to get out of this state of joy,” Muqbel Barghouti, the brother of prominent Palestinian leader and detainee on hunger strike Marwan Barghouti, told The Daily Star. “We were in a state of fear and anxiety for 40 days, our nerves were frayed.”
More than 900 Palestinian hunger strikers ended their 40-day protest against terrible conditions in Israeli prisons on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan Saturday.
While authorities have publicly refused to negotiate with the detainees from the outset, Issa Qaraqeh, chair of the Detainees Affairs Commission, told The Daily Star that a marathon 20-hour negotiation between Barghouti and Israeli officials in Ashkelon prison led to the Israeli concession to a score of demands and an end to the protest.
However, he noted that while a number of concessions were made, Israeli authorities and national media have tried to play down the significance of the agreement, while also denying that direct negotiations with detainees took place.
“The Israeli media is trying to make light of the hunger strike and its results. The reality is the strike achieved 80 percent of the detainees’ demands,” Qaraqeh said.
The main demands agreed by the Israeli officials included improving conditions for female detainees and minors, increasing visitation to two times per month as well as more telephone contact, loosening the definition of family to include extended relatives, improving emergency medical care in remote facilities, easing overcrowding and improving canteens and access to food during prison transfers.
Qaraqeh said the Israeli media has focused on the announced increase from one family visit a month to two as the sole achievement in a bid to portray the movement as ultimately unsuccessful.
“They only focused on this demand. The Israeli interior minister did not want to appear to have been pressured by the hunger strikers,” he said.
Qaraqeh said that the subject of the second family visit per month was a year-old issue between the Palestinian Authority and Red Cross, which handles the transportation of the families. The Red Cross had reduced family visitations to once a month, claiming financial issues, according to Qaraqeh.
Initially, at least 1,500 detainees joined the hunger strike led by Barghouti on April 17, in what is believed to be the largest and most drawn out coordinated protest by detainees in Israeli prisons since 1967.
“It is difficult to describe what I feel with words, but I am still scared because the Israelis toy with us and regularly renege on such promises,” said Wafa Abu Ghulmeh, whose husband Ahed, a commander in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, has been detained since 2011. This was the fourth time Ahed Abu Ghulmeh went on hunger strike.
In an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 TV station, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan denied that any pledge had been made regarding the detainees demands other than the number of visitations per month.
“It appears that this strike failed,” Erdan was quoted as saying in Israeli media.
Muqbel Barghouti speculated that as well as popular pressure from mass protests in support of the hunger strike across the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and wide international support, the recent visit by U.S. President Donald Trump may have played a role in the breakthrough.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas raised the case of the hunger strikers with Trump during his visit to the West Bank and again with U.S. envoy Jason Greenblatt during a meeting in Ramallah Thursday.
“I think the Americans are not interested in an explosive situation on the ground amid their efforts to revive peace talks,” Muqbel Barghouti said. “If one of the hunger strikers had died there would have been a dangerous escalation ... leading to chaos and violence.”
Elias Sabbagh, Marwan Barghouti’s lawyer, told The Daily Star that at a time of “Palestinian divisions and crises in the Arab world, here come the Palestinian detainees, and from within their prison cells they say, ‘Enough,’ and shake the Palestinian street.
“Whatever this strike achieved or did not achieve, they brought the Palestinian issue back to the forefront. No one can sidestep the cause of the detainees after this movement.”