JERUSALEM, Aug. 24 (JTA) — Now into its second week, a hunger strike by Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails encompasses close to 3,000 out of 3,800 inmates, making it the largest such demonstration in Israeli history. The issue quickly captured the attention of a Palestinian public in which nearly everyone has ties to someone who has done time in Israeli prisons. But Western public opinion has remained indifferent, preoccupied with the Olympic Games, rising oil prices, American elections and the continued crisis in Iraq. The strike began Aug. 15, with prisoners refusing to eat until wardens put an end to strip searches, allowed more frequent family visits, improved sanitation and installed public telephones. But the reasons behind the strike run deeper than creature comforts. The successful international campaign against Israel’s West Bank security barrier led Palestinian leaders to believe that the time was ripe to put yet another supposed civil rights issue on the national and international agenda. Israeli authorities, on the other hand, perceive the strike as yet another front in the comprehensive battle against terrorism, and have refused to negotiate. Israeli authorities say the strikers — most of whom were arrested on suspicion of involvement in terrorist attacks — merely want to improve their ability to communicate with the outside world so they can continue planning attacks from jail. Israel also has refused to bring the strikers to Israeli hospitals for medical treatment. Health Minister Dan Naveh has suggested setting up a mobile health facility at the prison if necessary. The timing of the strike was not coincidental: It began just as internal Palestinian criticism against Yasser Arafat was mounting. Diverting attention to Israel’s prisons conveniently served the Palestinian Authority president’s political needs. The security prisoners are perceived on the Palestinian street as “freedom fighters” who have paid a high price in the Palestinian war against Israel. They are second in rank only to the “martyrs” who have died in the intifada. According to the Addamir Prisoner Support Center, a Palestinian organization, approximately 650,000 Palestinians have served time in Israeli prisons since 1967. According to Israeli Prisons Service figures, some 54 percent of the prisoners serve up to five years in jail, 9 percent serve up to 10 years, 15 percent serve up to 20 years and fully 22 percent serve life sentences. Some say prison terms have become what military service is to Israelis. According to the Prisons Service, some 70 percent of the “security inmates” have “blood-stained” hands — meaning that they were directly involved or were accessories in terrorist attacks. Israeli jails always have been a hotbed for Palestinian terrorism. Ironically, there is a direct correlation between the growing number of security prisoners and the role of prisons as operation centers for terrorist networks. Captured terrorist commanders continue to exercise their authority from their prison cells. Indeed, it is believed that quite a number of terrorist attacks have been directed from prisons. Though prison authorities strictly forbid the use of cellular phones, hundreds of such phones have found their way into Israeli prisons, allowing prisoners to maintain open lines with terrorist organizations outside. One former security prisoner said in an interview with Ha’aretz that he used to tease the prison warden by using his cell phone to order pizza to the warden’s office, while still succeeding in hiding the phone from authorities. Since the outbreak of the intifada, Hamas terrorists — the main organizers of the present strike — have become more dominant in Israel’s prisons. Though the strike hasn’t played significantly in the West, it has strengthened ties between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority orchestrated wide national support for the inmates, and solidarity demonstrations and parades have become a matter of a daily routine throughout the territories. These have included parades of prisoners’ children, lawyers and Muslim worshipers, who have taken to the streets following Friday prayers. The Prisons Service has reacted to such demonstrations of solidarity with a series of countermeasures, such as banning family visits and cigarettes. Jails also have used psychological tactics such as barbecuing meat outside prisoners’ cells to intensify their hunger. So far, nearly 125 strikers have dropped their fast, authorities say — and one of the most prominent strikers, West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, was caught on camera surreptitiously wolfing down a meal. Previous hunger strikes have ended with gradual improvements in prisoners’ benefits. Over the years, the prisoners have been awarded a number of privileges that are not defined by law, including access to television, radio, newspapers, university education, special food and electronic games. But unlike previous strikes, this time around there have been no signs of surrender by either side. Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s minister of internal security, said that as far as he is concerned the “prisoners could strike till they starve.” Hanegbi was widely criticized for the comment, but he didn’t back off, reiterating this week that the government was determined not to give in to any of the prisoners’ demands. However, much depends on the course of events. Prison authorities indeed are concerned that if any of the prisoners starves to death, the strike may turn into an international affair, further complicating Israel’s stand on humanitarian issues. So far, only one such strike, in 1980, ended with the death of two prisoners during an attempt by prison authorities to force-feed them.
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