Israel has been warned that it faces a major uprising in the West Bank after six Palestinian prisoners taking part in one of the largest and most protracted hunger strikes ever staged in its jails were said to be close to death.
Palestinian militant groups and moderate politicians alike have predicted that years of relative tranquility could be brought to an abrupt and violent end if any of the 1,600 inmates now refusing food were to starve to death.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said this week that the six inmates who have declined sustenance the longest are “at imminent risk of dying”.
None of the six, who have all been admitted to prison hospitals, has eaten for the past 50 days. But the greatest concern is directed at two men, Thaer Halahleh and Bilal Diab.
By Thursday, both men had refused food for 74 days, one more than managed by Kieran Doherty, the longest surviving of the 10 Irish militants who died during the Maze Prison hunger strike of 1981. Bobby Sands, the best known of the prisoners and the first to die, succumbed after 66 days.
The two men’s act of defiance, initially a largely solitary affair called to protest their incarceration without trial, has spiralled into a major crisis for Israel. The vast majority of the 1,600 inmates demanding better prison conditions and and end to the practice of detention without trial have now been on hunger strike for 24 days and an ever growing number are having to receive medial attention.
But it is the potential for the crisis to spread beyond the razor-coiled walls of its prisons that really worries Israel. Prisoner rights have always been a deeply emotive subject for Palestinians, a fifth of whom — some 700,000 people — have served time in Israeli jails, according to activist groups.
There have already been violent clashes between protesters and the Israeli security forces outside prisons where hunger-striking inmates are being held. More demonstrations are planned for Friday.
Although the protests have been small so far, any death could cause such outrage that it could easily revive the resentments that triggered the Second Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, in 2000, according to relatives of some of the prisoners.
“If anyone dies there will be a third intifada that will include both violence and non-violence,” said Ahmad Zidan, whose brother Rami is among the hunger strikers.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a militant Gaza-based group, has already declared that it will end its ceasefire if any prisoner dies while this week Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, sounded his own ominous warning.
“It is very dangerous,” Mahmoud Abbas told Reuters. “If anyone dies today or tomorrow or after a week, it would be a disaster and no-one could control the situation.”
Israeli officials admit they are in quandary. Israel has already reached deals to free two hunger striking prisoners earlier this year. If they do the same with Halahleh and Diab, both accused of membership of Palestinian Islamic Jihand which they deny, it would only embolden other hunger-striking prisoners.
Nor is it willing to end the practice of “administrative detention”, under which more than 300 Palestinians are held, saying the practice is essential to protect informants in the West Bank whose identity would be exposed in a trial before open court.
“From Israel’s point of view, if every time someone goes on hunger strike they get a get out of jail free card, obviously that would not be sustainable,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
But he also conceded that any deaths would be dangerous for Israel and would give some of the instigators of the hunger strike what he said they have been after all along: a martyr.
“We don’t want to see someone on custody commit suicide,” he said. “Many of these prisoners were involved in very gruesome crimes against civilians. There is a concern that some of them are trying to commit suicide in order to instigate violence.”
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