Forty days without consuming anything more than water and salt has left Ali Brijieh, 41, visibly fragile. Taut skin stretched over his hollowed cheeks, his thin arms somehow seemed too long for his body, while the joints at his elbows jutted out in sharp angles. His whole body seems wrong and sickly. An IV drip for his arm was disconnected, he was taking a break from the stream of nutrients doctors had been providing him since he was released from prison after 12 years and transferred to a Palestinian hospital outside of Bethlehem on Tuesday.
Brijieh was one of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners who undertook an open-ended hunger strike launched on April 17 in demand of better conditions for political prisoners.
The hunger strike went on for forty days before a deal was reportedly met between the Israeli government and the strike’s leader, Marwan Barghouti, a highly popular imprisoned political figure believed by many to be vying for the Palestinian presidency.
Following negotiations, the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Palestinian Committee of Prisoners’ Affairs said that the Israeli government had agreed to 80 percent of the prisoners’ demands–an enormous win for Palestinian prisoners, if the outcome described is legitimate.
While the PLO is announcing a major victory, the Israeli Prison Service (IPS), a department of the government that oversees prisoners, has vehemently denied it ever negotiated with the hunger strikers, and stated during a Knesset meeting on Monday that no demands were met.
The International Committee of the Red Cross used to provide two family visits a month, however, due to budget constraints, the committee canceled one of the monthly visits last year. The Palestinian Authority agreed to cover the cost of the second monthly visit, which will be reinstated, and was, according to the IPS, the only benefit given to the prisoners to end their hunger strike.
“The Palestinian Authority decided to fund the transport of the families to the prisons, thus allowing a second monthly visit, and we informed the prisoners of this,” senior IPS official Asher Vaknin said during the Knesset meeting. “They decided that this would suffice. We did not cancel the second monthly visit, and we did not reinstate it either.”
However, Brijieh, who was still in prison on hunger strike when the PLO announced it had struck a deal with the IPS, said prisoners were told 80 percent of their demands were to be met if he and the other prisoners ended their strike.
Before the strike’s completion, rumors spread that senior officials from the Israel Security Agency, known as the Shin Bet, met with senior Palestinian officials and discussed with them the prisoners’ demands. According to Haaretz, the Shin Bet required that the strike end before any changes in the conditions of prisoners could be considered.
The alleged deal between the Shin Bet and Palestinian officials is not confirmed. If such an agreement was reached, Palestinian prisoners say they were not told about it. They were under the impression that their demands were met before the strike ended.
Which side is telling the truth has yet to be proven. The PLO has repeated its claim that 80 percent of the terms of the negotiations were met, and the Israelis have continued to deny any negotiations ever took place.
Qadura Fares who runs the Palestinian Prisoners Club advocacy group, and representatives of the PLO, were reached for comment but declined Mondoweiss’ request.
Brijieh told Mondoweiss that if Israel does not meet the demands the prisoners were told were agreed upon, which led to the end of the strike, then a second, more severe, hunger strike would be launched.
“In two or three months if we see the demands haven’t been met, we will go back on strike, and the next time won’t be the same as the last, a second hunger strike would be much stronger,” he said, sitting up in his hospital bed. “If the Israelis think that we are not able to do another hunger strike, I can promise you they’re wrong. The men inside are able and willing to do it again. With the courage and strength I saw inside, I am sure they can do another hunger strike, a bigger and stronger one. I swear when I was inside we were able to keep going much more than 40 days.”
According to Brijieh, the hunger strike ended just ten days before a serious escalation was planned to take place–one that would have surely resulted in the loss of life.
“We were ready to stop drinking water and salt on the hunger strike, that was the plan. We’d already decided that when [the Muslim holy month of] Ramadan started we would start the ‘Martyrs Movement,’” he said. “The plan was that ten of us at a time would start refusing water and salt and even though we would have lost the first ten men, another ten would have started after them again, and again, ten at a time, to prove to the Israeli administration that we are able to continue.”
Brijieh said the IPS and Palestinian leadership was informed of their plan to escalate the strike.
“We told the Israeli administration at the time that after the first week of Ramadan we would start that movement,” he said. “I can say with certainty, that a human being who has the kind of determination and strength to refuse water and salt during a hunger strike like that, to refuse any kind of nutrients, that is the kind of person who can commit and is able to do any hunger strike, any time. We are ready to go again if we have to.”
During the Knesset meeting where the IPS briefed Israeli lawmakers about their alleged lack of negotiations, members of Israel’s ruling Likud party got into a heated debate with members of the Joint List, the party representing Israel’s Palestinian citizens.
“If we were to do the right thing, every terrorist would get a bullet to the head. There is enough room underground,” MK Oren Hazan said during the meeting, referring to Palestinian security prisoners.
After Hazan’s statement, MK Osama Saadi of the Joint List expressed shock during a meeting of Knesset’s Internal Affairs Committee. Saadi accused Hazan of “inciting to murder.”
The chair of the group, MK David Amsalem, said he was disturbed by the hunger-strikers’ “silly demands,” adding that he was pleased the IPS “did not negotiate” with the prisoners.
“Most democratic countries do not treat terrorists as well as we do,” Amsalem said. “A terrorist should sit in jail and get dry bread and a glass of water. It is rude to demand studies. Those who want to wage a hunger strike, let them wage a hunger strike. You don’t want to eat, don’t eat. It was important for me to hear that the State did not move from its initial position, and no one threatens us with strikes.”
Time will tell whether negotiations between an Israeli body and Palestinian officials were ever actually held, and if so, what kind of deal was settled on. What is clear, is the risk that one side of the political spectrum could face a serious fallout from their constituencies when the facts come out.