Two hunger-striking Palestinians will enter their 71st day without food today as they protest their detention without charge in Israeli prisons.

The men are joined by more than 2000 other Palestinian prisoners who have denied food for three weeks in a mass protest for more humane prison conditions and against the process of administrative detention, which sees detainees held without charge for renewable six-month terms. Among the group are prisoners with medical conditions and more than 20 imprisoned members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.  Ten of the collective hungers strikers have so far been admitted to hospital.

Concern over the protesters’ health is mounting — particularly for the small group of six administrative detainees who have all fasted for periods longer than 45 days.

On Monday, Israel’s Supreme Court rejected an appeal to release Thaer Halahleh, 33, and Bilal Diab, 27, who began refusing food on February 28. “They will continue their strike till the end,” Jamil Khatib, the lawyer for Diab and Thaer, told AFP after the hearing.

In a letter to Muhjat al-Quds, a Palestinian prisoner rights group, Halahleh said his hair had begun falling out and he had lost 28 kilograms since starting his hunger strike. “We did not go into the battle because we love to be hungry or in pain, but for our dignity and the dignity of our nation,” the letter read.

Along with Halahleh and Diab, fellow administrative detainees Hassan al-Safadi and Omar Abu Shalal will respectively enter their 66th and 64th days of hunger strike on Wednesday, while Jafar Izz al-Din and Mahmoud Sarsaq will enter their 47th day.

The action follows the recent 66-day hunger strike of Khader Adnan and 43-day fast of Hanah Shalabi, who protested their administrative detention orders. Adnan ended his hunger strike in February and was released from prison last month, while Shalabi, from the West Bank, agreed to a deal in March in which she was released from prison but exiled to Gaza for three years.

Administrative detention allows the use of secret evidence available only to judges with detainees not given an opportunity to contest allegations made against them. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip deems illegal affiliation with prescribed political groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Membership in these parties is often seen as a reason for administrative detention orders being issued. There are currently 320 Palestinians held in Israel under administrative detention.

Mourad Ajaeallah, a lawyer with Addameer, noted that Halaleh had been held in administrative detention for six and a half years. He told Crikey the authority managing Israel’s prisons had made seeing prisoners during their hunger strike extremely difficult.

“The Israeli Prison Service demands we send requests for each visit but they refuse them so every time we have to appeal to the Israeli District Court,” he said.

Sarit Michael, from the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, explained that the practice of administrative detention is permissible under international law in occupied territories, such as the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but only in extreme cases where a credible likelihood of immediate future danger exists.

“Our analysis of the use of administrative detention by Israel leads us to conclude that it is used in a way that far exceeds the provisions in international law,” she said. “Very often there is an opinion that the use of administrative detention is not actually to thwart a future danger but as a substitute for criminal action.”

She called on the Israeli government to either try all administrative detainees or release all administrative detainees.

In Ramallah, Intsar Bayoub sits wearing traditional Palestinian dress inside a makeshift tent erected in a busy central square. In her hands is an airbrushed picture of her son, who is serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison. He is one of the hundreds undertaking the campaign for improved conditions for Palestinians inside Israeli prisons.

Amid the hustle and bustle of traffic, hawkers and pedestrians, Intsar is joined by about 20 people, each with a loved one refusing food. Each day their numbers fluctuate from several to hundreds as people stop by to show support.  A presence at the tent has been maintained since the mass hunger strike began on April 17.

“Since the hunger strike began I have had no information from my son,” Intsar, 61, explained. “I am worried about his health but he is fighting for the rights of prisoners.”

Adameer’s Mourad Ajaeallah said the principal demands of the collective hunger strike include visitation rights for families of prisoners from the Gaza Strip, an end to long-term solitary confinement, a cessation of raids on prisoners and their cells and allowances for prisoners to study at higher education institutions while incarcerated.

“There are prisoners that have been in isolation for over 10 years,” he said. “Also, of the 4600 Palestinians in Israeli prisons more than 2000 are not allowed to receive family visitors.”

Almost all Palestinians have a close family member or loved one who is serving or has served time in Israeli prisons and this has had a profound impact on recent generations of Palestinians living in the occupied territories.

Linah Al-Saafin, a Ramallah-based journalist and activist who recently published a series profiling the hunger-striking prisoners for Lebanese news website Al-Akhbar, explained that while there is widespread concern for the plight of prisoners among the Palestinian population there is also frustration.

“Prisoners were always a central issue in the Palestinian consciousness but in recent years that has regressed due to political divisions and the so-called Palestinian leadership has forsaken them,” she said. “Instead of actually representing Palestinian interests they are embarking on economic neo-liberal policies and the establishment of a shoddy Palestinian state.”

While much of the world’s media has so far ignored their actions, Al-Saafin wants people in Palestine to hear their silent message.

“They’re willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice and are there to remind us that resistance is an obligation of every Palestinian under occupation,” she stressed.

Peter Fray

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