GAZA CITY, October 6 (JMCC) - At the door of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Gaza, families of prisoners and Palestinian political factions have set up a tent in solidarity with their jailed relatives
who are now ten days into a hunger strike protesting their conditions in Israeli jails.
The tent is filled with posters of prisoners, the largest one portraying 35 prisoners who have spent more than 25 years in detention.
While Israel says that many of these Palestinians are being justly held for breaking terrorism-related laws, Palestinians consider them political prisoners and heroes fighting for the national cause.
Families, journalists and human rights activists observed a one-day hunger strike on Monday in solidarity with the prisoners.
Tears filled the eyes of Samir Abdulwahab, from Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza, when he spoke of the ordeal he imagines his son, a prisoner sentenced to 40 years in jail, is undergoing. "I cannot imagine that my son is starving,” he said. “I have no appetite to eat. How can I taste food while my son is starving?"
The prisoners’ main demands are that prison officials end the use of solitary confinement, allow families to visit their sons and relatives (Gaza families are not allowed visits at all and West Bank families face great difficulties), allow university education during imprisonment, end the practice of detaining prisoners without trial (administrative detention), and allow good access to medical care.
There are currently 270 Palestinians being held under administrative detention, says Abdulnasser Firwana of the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Prisoners. Some 6,000 Palestinians, including 285 children and 83 women are serving prison sentences.
SOLIDARITY & SUPPORT
Naji al-Qiq, a 41-year-old ex-prisoner from the southern town of Rafah, recalled a previous hunger strike in 1992 that he participated in. "The only thing the prisoner on strike needs to hear is rallies in solidarity,” he said. “He needs to hear about any activity in solidarity with him. This gives him a boost."
Al-Qiq said that the prisoners probably have little hope that their jailers will change policies soon. They know “it will be a long-term strike and need steadfastness. That is what happened in 1992, and we achieved a lot."
In 1992, prisoners succeeded in getting Israeli officials to allow them to pursue higher education while in jail. In 2009, however, the rule was rescinded.
Poet Rihab Kanaan joins the sit-in at the tent daily to support the prisoners.
"Those heroes who launched the battle of the empty stomach--the world should pay attention to them rather than paying attention to one Israeli soldier detained by [the] resistance."
Armed Palestinians captured an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, in 2006. Hamas, negotiating with Israel for Shalit’s release, has asked that he be exchanged for some 1,500 Palestinian prisoners.
Egyptian and German mediators have failed in reaching a compromise in the talks.
Firwana said that the prisoners have stopped consuming all food, but are drinking water with some salt “to keep themselves alive.” Poor contact with the prisoners means no one knows how many are actually participating, although several days ago prison officials said several hundred Palestinians were refusing food.
Also a veteran of the 1992 strike, Firwana says refusing to eat is one of the rare tools available to Palestinians in Israeli jails. Elderly and infirm prisoners do not participate.
Rafat Hamdouna, head of the prisoner’s unit in the political faction Fateh, says that the prisoners will expand the strike gradually as long as officials refuse to respond.
Currently, some 55 prisoners are in solitary confinement. “They meet nobody, and do not see any human," Firwana said.
The prisoners are also demanding an end to night raids of their cells and individual strip searches. Ex-prisoner Yazid al-Hwaihi, 54, said that these have become regular occurrences in the jails.
"If the prisoner refuses, he will face harsh torture and spend several weeks in solitary confinement," said al-Hwaihi.
Prisoners also seek an end to administrative detention, where Palestinians are detained for six months on end upon the order of a military judge. These sentences can be renewed several times.
Human rights advocates are supporting the prisoner’s strike. The Independent Commission for Human Rights in Gaza reports that some 800 prisoners are in need of regular medical care, but are treated with “carelessness” by prison officials
The group also notes stringent security measures. For more than four years, families from Gaza have been prevented from visiting approximately 650 imprisoned relatives.
Israel transports Palestinian prisoners to jails outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip it occupies, which is a violation of their rights in international law.
Palestinian television stations are broadcasting live talk shows and programs in support of the striking prisoners.
Young people have begun campaigns through Facebook and other social media websites, spreading news of the strike and offering solidarity to the prisoners.
Imams in mosques have also delivered sermons praising these "heroes" and calling on the public to show their support.