It was exactly two years ago when Palestinian prisoners wrested concessions from Israeli prison authorities after a weeks-long hunger strike that brought two men to the brink of death. But last month, a new hunger strike began among administrative detainees–Palestinians held without charge or trial in Israeli jails for alleged crimes committed against occupation authorities or civilians.
Over 100 prisoners are now refusing food–though they are drinking water and salt–in an attempt to pressure Israel to end its policy of holding prisoners on secret evidence with no recourse to challenge their detention in court. The hunger strike is taking place inside the walls of Ofer, Meggido and Naqab prisons.
The use of administrative detention was one of the issues that fueled the last major Palestinian prisoner hunger strike in 2012, when 2,000 people engaged in the protest. The Israel Prison Service (IPS) agreed to a number of Palestinian demands to end the strike, including the end of long-term isolation of prisoners and family visits for prisoners from Gaza, though Israel has continued to bar some of the children of prisoners from the coastal strip from visiting. The IPS also said they would not renew or implement any new administrative detention orders unless there was a grave security risk to Israel from the prisoners. In return, Israel said that Palestinian prisoners agreed to halt “terrorist activity” within prisons.
There was widespread skepticism at the time on whether Israel would follow through on the administrative detention concession. Now, prisoners and the rights group Addameer that is backing them say that Israel has reneged on its commitment to lessen administrative detention.
According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, there has been a steady increase in administrative detainees since August 2013. In total, 191 prisoners are held under administrative detention. Israel has renewed administrative detention orders for some prisoners and implemented new orders despite the 2012 agreement.
Holding prisoners without charge or trial is permitted under international law, but only to prevent a danger that couldn’t be stopped in a less punitive fashion. Human rights organizations within Israel/Palestine and abroad have accused Israel of violating international law by engaging in the widespread use of administrative detention.
In addition to being held without trial, the evidence against administrative detainees is kept secret, and Israel is allowed to renew the six-month detention orders indefinitely.
Palestinian prisoners, some of whom have engaged in violent actions targeting Israelis, hold an iconic status in society, their faces plastered on posters in every city. And when prisoners engage in a mass hunger strike, it ignites a wave of activism both within Israeli jails and amongst the larger population.
This week, thirty more prisoners joined the hunger strike, and hundreds more joined in for a one-day hunger strike–including icon among icons, Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti. Palestinian women delivered petitions to the United Nations and Red Cross on Tuesday, calling on them to intervene for their relatives, Ma’an News‘ Graham Liddell reported. Palestinians have held rallies in Gaza and West Bank to show support, and have also used social media campaigns to generate attention.
The Israeli prison authorities have reacted harshly, according to Addameer. The group says Israeli prison guards have denied access to prisoners’ lawyers; violently raided and searched the cells of hunger strikers; denied prisoners water and salt; and the barring of family visits for months. In addition, at least two prisoners have been transferred to solitary confinement, while guards try to break the hunger strike by offering them food. Separately, the Knesset is debating legislation that would give the IPS authority to force-feed hunger-striking prisoners.
In the past, Israeli authorities, wary of igniting mass political action outside prison walls, sought to negotiate with the leaders of the hunger strike when a prisoner is close to death.