Palestinian inmates in Israeli jails start mass hunger strike today

Prisoners hope to draw attention to solitary confinement and detention without charge

Jerusalem

More than 1,600 Palestinian prisoners will today launch a mass hunger strike in protest at Israel's controversial administrative detention laws that allow it to hold prisoners indefinitely without charge.

The protest – timed to coincide with the annual Prisoner's Day – comes as two inmates in Israeli jails enter their 48th day on hunger strike. In recent weeks, two other captives came close to death after weeks without food, prompting Israel to agree to individual deals for their release that averted the need for a fundamental shift in policy.

The hunger-strikers have a long list of demands, top of which is to protest against administrative detention, a draconian policy that Israel has used to jail indefinitely those it deems a security threat.

More than 300 of over 4,600 Palestinian prisoners are currently held without charge, in some cases for years without ever knowing why. Israel says that revealing evidence in public courts would endanger its informants and methods, but critics argue that it prevents defendants from challenging the charges. Eleven prisoners are already on hunger strike, including Bilal Diab, 27, and Tha'er Halahi, 34, who have shunned food now for 48 days. Mr Diab, who was arrested in August, has collapsed several times, according to Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), which has been monitoring the two men.

Fears of a sharp deterioration in Mr Diab's condition were raised last week when he refused to drink, and PHR to urge Israel to transfer the two men to a civilian hospital urgently. He has since agreed to accept fluids and his condition has stabilised, the rights group said. Mr Halalha, who has been held for almost two years without charge, is also in a stable condition. Both are in a prison hospital.

But many of those who will join the strike today are seeking much more basic rights than a review of the detention policy. Among other things, they are demanding improved family visitation rights, greater access to education, books and newspapers, and an end to the use of solitary confinement to punish high-profile prisoners.

Hunger strikes have been a hugely effective tool in the past, said Murad Jadallah, a legal researcher at Addameer, a prisoners' rights group. In the 1970s, it was used to obtain the most basic of privileges, such as pens and paper. "Everything you have in Israeli prisons has come through suffering," he said.

Following intense international scrutiny, Israel recently reached deals with two hunger-strikers. Khader Adnan, believed to be a member of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, refused food for 66 days and Israel reduced his administrative term by two months, scheduling him for release today.

Hana Shalabi, another suspected Islamic Jihad member, was freed last October as part of a prisoner swap for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, but was re-arrested in February and again held without charge. As her health deteriorated after 43 days without food, Israel agreed to release her on the condition that she be exiled to Gaza for three years. Her family, which insists she has not been involved in terror activity since the prisoner exchange, lives in Jenin in the northern West Bank.

An Israeli government spokesman, Mark Regev, said administrative detention was "unfortunately a necessary tool" in fighting terrorism, adding: "[The prisoners] are not vegetarians. Islamic Jihad has a military structure ... and believes every citizen in my country is a legitimate target."

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