Dozens of Palestinians shut down the Red Cross office in this Palestinian city Thursday, while dozens more blocked the entrances to the Jerusalem offices of the European Union and the United Nations in a widening protest aimed at drawing attention to an epidemic of hunger strikes among prisoners held by Israel.
“Nobody understands how huge an issue this is for the Palestinian people. Nobody understands that this is an issue that can make this whole place explode,” Ehab Sumrain, who was among the protesters and whose brother is among the Palestinian prisoners who’ve refused food in Israeli jails, said earlier this week. “For us, the time is now critical. The world must know what is happening to our brothers.”
There is no official word on how many Palestinian prisoners are now observing hunger strikes _ estimates vary from 1,500 to over 2,500 _ but there is little doubt that they account for a substantial minority, if not a majority, of the 4,700 Palestinians currently held by Israel.
Two, Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahlah, are listed in critical condition after going without food for 72 days. Eight others have been hospitalized, according to Israeli officials.
Physicians for Human Rights, an Israeli NGO based in Tel Aviv, warned Thursday that many of the hunger strikers face imminent death.
“If they die they will be martyrs for the Palestinian cause,” said Bashir Idiab, head of the Palestinian Prisoners Association in the West Bank. “We do not want this, but we will not give up our fight.”
The hunger strikers have become a cause célèbre in Palestinian society, said Idiab, because Israeli prison is a shared experience all Palestinians can relate to.
“The imprisoned Palestinians occupy an important role in Palestinian society. We see them as political prisoners. Since 1967, 1.6 million people have served time in jail. That means that 1.6 million Palestinian families have experienced having a family member in an Israeli jail,” he said. “That’s one quarter of Palestinians.”
Chief among the demands of the hunger strikers is an end to administrative detention, which Israeli officials can impose on a prisoner without formal charges for six-month periods that can be renewed indefinitely. More than 300 Palestinians are in administrative detention, where they might be held for years without ever being charged with a crime.
“There must be an end to this practice, because it is used so widely and so unfairly by Israel. Those under administrative detention are never told the charges against them or the reasons they are let go or kept,” Idiab said.
Prisoners also want Israel to lift a series of restrictions known as the “Gilad Shalit laws” that were put in place when Shalit, an Israeli soldier, was captured by militants and held in the Gaza Strip. The restrictions include limits on family visits and the expanded use of solitary confinement. Shalit was released last year in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.
“Shalit is back but our prisoners still have to suffer,” said Idiab.
Israel prison authorities said they are considering the demands and that negotiations were underway. Sivan Weitzman, a spokeswoman for the Israeli prison service, said that a decision was expected soon and that the hunger strikers were only “harming themselves.”
Palestinians leaders have warned, however, that violent protests could erupt across the West Bank if one of the hunger strikers dies.
In an interview earlier this week, Palestinian President Salam Fayaad, said he feared there would be serious repercussions if Israel failed to act quickly.
"The most tragic thing is if you look at the list of demands they have presented Israel ... they are generally related to the basic rights of prisoners," he said. "There is a clear violation of the Geneva conventions."
Idiab said there were clear signs that public support for the hunger strikers had already taken hold across Palestinian society.
“There have been daily protests by people who do not normally come to protests. Every union – the teachers, the engineers – they come to protest here. Each one of them knows someone who has been or is in jail. They cannot forget that so they cannot forget this cause,” he said.
Ehab Sumrain said his daily visits to the protest were more than just support for his brother, who is serving several life sentences for stabbing an Israeli soldier. Ehab Sumrain and his older brothers have all spent time in Israeli jails. They were accused of involvement in banned terror groups.
“We are three brothers in my family and three of us are wearing Israeli shackles,” he said. “We all must support each other because we all face the prisons.”