At least 1,200 Palestinians in Israeli jails launched an open-ended hunger strike on Tuesday, raising the stakes in a protest about jail conditions and justice that has put the Jewish state under heightened scrutiny.
The start of their action coincided with the release of Khader Adnan, a prisoner who refused food for 66 days before agreeing to a deal under which he was released late on Tuesday and greeted by hundreds of supporters when he reached his hometown in the West Bank.
Inspired by his protest, a female prisoner, Hana Shalabi, refused food for 43 days before the Israelis deported her to Gaza, barring her from returning to her native West Bank for at least three years.
Hunger strikes by a few individuals have gathered an unexpected momentum, leading to mass action by prisoners against the Israeli use of solitary confinement, the difficulty of securing family visits and the strip searches inflicted on visitors.
Palestinians also criticise the use of ‘administrative detention’, whereby Israel can imprison suspects indefinitely, without ever informing them of the charges they face or presenting their lawyers with any evidence.
Hundreds of prisoners joined the “battle of empty stomachs” on Tuesday to coincide with “Prisoners’ Day”, when both the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip stage mass rallies in support of some 4,800 Palestinians who are held in Israeli jails.
The Israeli prisons authority said 2,300 prisoners had announced they would reject their daily meal on Tuesday, while 1,200 indicated they were launching a formal hunger strike.
“The Israeli Prisons Authority has coped with hunger strikes in the past and is prepared to cope with it now,” it added.
Palestinian officials said 1,600 prisoners were joining the indefinite hunger strike, which fits into their much broader struggle to secure an independent homeland.
“I am afraid for the life of my son. I am afraid for all their lives. All the prisoners are as dear to me as my son is”, said Gaza resident Zbaida Al-Masri, adding that her son, Yusri, was serving a 20-year term for fighting against Israel.