Nearly 1,500 Palestinian prisoners are turning down their regular meals as of April 17 in a collective, non-violent protest through hunger strike.
Palestinians outside the prisons and many around the world are endorsing the demands of some 6,500 Palestinians held in jail, including 300 children, 13 elected legislators and 500 administrative detainees, held without charge or trial.
Amnesty International has added its voice to those of the hunger strikers, saying that the Israeli policy is “illegal and cruel”.
The major demand of the prisoners is elementary: family visits.
By Israeli prison policy, those in jail are allowed family visits twice a month. However, for many Palestinians, this does not happen.
Some have not had family visits for years because of an Israeli legal twist.
In violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel is holding most Palestinian prisoners in detention centres in Israel. To reach their loved ones, Palestinians in the West Bank need a permission to enter Israel. Such permission is routinely denied for security reasons.
So while the prison authority might technically say it is willing to honour the visitation rights, the Israeli state puts a monkey wrench in the process simply by denying travel permits for Palestinians to enter Israel.
Families in Gaza have even a harder time getting such permits, which are rarely provided to Palestinians in the strip.
Prisoners are also making some other basic demands, such as allowing the 57 female prisoners to meet their family members without being separated by glass windows. This would allow many to hold their children.
Using a payphone to make family calls is not allowed and medical services are so bad that over the years, 210 Palestinians died in Israeli jails, many due to lack of medical care.
Another major demand is to end the internationally illegal administrative detention.
Prisoners are held for a renewable six-month periods without any charge or trial.
Human rights organisations have repeatedly slammed Israel for continuing these unlawful detentions, but to no avail.
The current hunger strike has been initiated by the leading Fateh prisoner Marwan Barghouthi who was recently reelected to the ruling Fateh movement’s highest body, the central committee, having received the highest votes from the movement’s members.
A strong op-ed appearing in the New York Times on April 17, the day of the hunger strike, rattled the Israelis and their supporters who launched an attack on the American newspaper whose editor succumbed to and added an editor’s note stating the crimes that Barghouthi was convicted for and noting that the Palestinian leader declined to offer a defence at his trial and refused to recognise the Israeli court’s jurisdiction and legitimacy.
The editor’s note forced on the times, in some ways helps Barghouthi.
Israel threw Barghouthi in solitary confinement for writing the op-ed article, an act that actually proves the point of the Palestinian leader and his fellow prisoners about the arbitrary and cruel nature of Israel’s dealing with Palestinian prisoners.
Palestinian lawyers announced that they will boycott the Israeli military courts in response to Israel’s prison authority denying them their right to see their clients in jail.
The prisoners’ hunger strike that began on Palestinian Prisoner Day, April 17, will likely be still on when Mahmoud Abbas visits Washington, in early May, thus further raising its visibility.
In a show of solidarity, Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, who chaired a Cabinet meeting in the northern West Bank city of Jenin, also visited the solidarity tent to express his support for the demands of the striking prisoners.
Tens of such solidarity tents have been erected all over Palestine.
Prisoners’ protests often have a life of their own, and over the years, Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strikes have become a unifying event of Palestinians and tend to galvanise the entire society, as well as supporters around the world.
The hallmark of any democracy in the world is adherence to the rule of law and respect for international treaties and covenants.
The Israelis refuse to recognise the areas it conquered in 1967 as occupied territories and therefore refuse to honour international humanitarian law in regard to the rights of people under military occupation.
Palestinian prisoners and their families have the basic humanitarian right to see each other twice a month without the restrictions and bans imposed by the fact that Israel illegally transfers Palestinian prisons to Israel.
The prisoners’ demands have received the blessing of international human rights organisations because they are just and fair.
It is time for Israel to honour its international obligation and for the international community to hold Israel accountable for its violations.
The hunger strike is not simply about the rights of prisoners, it is about the rights of all Palestinians to live without occupation and its unlawful and cruel restrictions.