A new phase of the Palestinian Intifada has begun, launched in dramatic fashion inside Israeli prisons. Approximately 4000 Palestinian political prisoners – including women, children, and elderly - began an open-ended hunger strike on August 15th to protest the Israeli government’s violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.
The prisoners are held in the following prisons: Nafha, Asqalan, Shattah, Hadareem, Gilbo, Ar-Ramle for women, Ar-Ramle (Nitsan- No. 2), and Bir as-Sabaa. The other 3500 prisoners in the rest of the jails and military camps are taking part in protests and partial strikes in solidarity with the prisoners on strike.
The prisoners’ strike is one of a humanitarian nature whereby the prisoners are seeking to improve the conditions inside the prisons and stop the humiliating Israeli policies of interrogation.
For the 13th day of the hunger strike, the Israeli government continues to refuse to engage in negotiations with the prisoners or their representatives. Instead, Israeli officials have responded with various forms of punishment designed to break the will of the prisoners to maintain the strike. Prison officials have ordered Jewish prisoners in the Nafha prison to prepare barbeques for the strikers in hopes that the smells would force the men and women to cave in.
The Israeli Prison Service has so far refused to transfer any sick prisoner to hospitals outside the prisons. In accordance with the directions of the Israeli Minister of Health, Israeli hospitals are prevented from allowing striker prisoners in. In some cases, the guards have even refused to transfer the prisoners to clinics inside the prisons. This was the case of Ibrahim Nejas, a political prisoner from Ramallah, who is imprisoned in the solitary confinement section at ar-Ramle prison. In the Nafha jail, a special Israeli security unit (called Nahshon) has used physical and psychological pressure against the striker prisoners.
Israeli prison guards have removed books, newspapers, cigarettes, and salt from the prisons to punish the strikers. (Salt is imperative to stay alive during extended periods of having no food). Lawyers are prevented from meeting striker prisoners. Family visitation to these prisoners was halted. Many transfers are taking place between and within the prisoners in order to create an environment of instability. Prisons Service has also begun to mix non-political Jewish prisoners with striker political prisoners. Meanwhile, some striker prisoners have been put in solitary confinement as a form of punishment to force prisoners to end their strike.
The Israeli government response to the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike has been callous and criminal. The Israeli Minister of Public Security, Tzachi Hanegbi, told reporters at a press conference in Jerusalem on August 13th that the prisoners “can strike for a day, a month, even starve to death, we will not respond to their demands”. Such comments from Israeli authorities must be taken seriously and prisoners must be protected against policies that amount to de facto death sentences.
Prisoners in the solitary confinement section in Ayalon prison communicated to the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society that a high ranking officer visited their ward and declared that the war waged against the prisoners is part of the war waged against the Palestinian people. The medical staff inside the prisons has tried to blackmail prisoners by offering them medical help and medication, but only if they break their hunger strike.
In affidavits given to two lawyers of the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society on August 24th, 2004, the prisoners described the use of coercive measures by Israeli authorities against the striker prisoners. These include threats, psychological and physical pressures. The measures being employed by Israeli authorities, according to the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society include: Beatings that left scars on the prisoners’ bodies; physical searches of naked prisoners after they left the clinics to return to their cells or before being transferred to other prisons; raiding detention cells and forcing prisoners to take off their clothes and searching inside the cells in the middle of the night; confiscating salt, cigarettes, books and stationary as well as electric equipment such as fans; prison guards smoke in the prisons’ corridors in order to tempt striking prisoners (who have been denied cigarettes); bringing food to the corridors of the prisons to whet the appetites of striker prisoners. This caused fainting and unconsciousness among some prisoners; confiscating fans caused difficulty in breathing among some prisoners especially in the solitary confinement section at Ayalon prison; barbequing in the corridors and the yards of the Shattah jail; transferring the leaders of the prisoners’ movement to other prisons or placing them in solitary confinement. Tawfiq Aby Naim, the representative of Nafha prison was transferred to the solitary confinement section at Bir As-Sabaa jail and Naser Abu Rajab was moved from Shattah to Gilbo. 70 prisoners were transferred from Asqalan prison to Nafha.
The treatment of Palestinian prisoners in Israel violates both international and Israeli laws, as well as rules governing the administration of Israeli prisons.
Protest tents have been set up in cities and towns throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territories, where families of the striker prisoners and their supporters have gathered each day in a show of solidarity with the prisoners. Other protest tents have been set up inside Israel, Lebanon, and the United States. Dignitaries and political leaders have been visiting the tents and a number of nonviolent actions, including marches and candlelight vigils, have been taking place around the tents.
Despite the deterioration in their medical condition, the Palestinian prisoners show no signs of breaking the strike. The prisoners threatened to intensify their strike by refusing to drink even water if the Israeli authorities continued with their escalatory actions against them.