Why hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israel are on hunger strike

Inmates are refusing all food and surviving on salt water only

Marwan Barghouti Palestine Israel Hunger Strike
Protesters wave flags in support of Marwan Barghouti, leader of the hunger strike
(Image credit: Abbas Momani / Getty Images)

A hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners protesting against conditions in Israeli jails is now entering its fifth week.

More than 1500 inmates launched the mass hunger strike on 17 April to coincide with Palestinian Prisoners' Day.

Their demands include reinstating family visits, allowing prisoners to study, providing better medical treatment and the abolition of solitary confinement, administrative detention and imprisonment without charge or trial.

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Writing in the New York Times, Marwan Barghouti, the leader of the strike, who has been in prison for the last 15 years, said he was both "a witness to and a victim of Israel's illegal system of mass arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment".

Saying he had exhausted all other options, Barghouti, 57, said there was "no choice but to resist these abuses by going on a hunger strike".

"Decades of experience have proved that Israel's inhumane system of colonial and military occupation aims to break the spirit of prisoners and the nation to which they belong, by inflicting suffering on their bodies, separating them from their families and communities, and using humiliating measures to compel subjugation," he wrote.

Barghouti was sentenced to 40 years in jail in 2004 for directing lethal attacks during the Second Intifada following a trial in which he refused to offer a defence due to his belief the court was illegitimate, reports The Guardian.

The prisoners on hunger strike are refusing all food and surviving only on salt water.

Israeli authorities have condemned the strike outright but have been holding meetings in an attempt to avoid an escalation.

Security minister Gilad Erdan told the country's Army Radio station that the striking inmates were “terrorists and incarcerated murderers who are getting what they deserve".

The government has vowed not to negotiate directly with the strikers, says The Times of Israel.

Instead, Palestinian Security Services (PSS) has been conducting talks to end the strike with Shin Bet, the intelligence agency of Israel, to no avail.

PSS has reportedly told Shin Bet they must negotiate with the protesters and not through the Palestinian authorities.

Last week saw Israeli authorities release a video that they claim shows Barghouti secretly eating food in his cell, a claim the strike leader and his lawyers have stringently denied.

"Marwan said that he does not know when these pictures were taken, and he considered publishing the video as blackmail and illegal action by the Israeli government," Barghouti's lawyers said in a statement. Barghouti has responded to the claims by refusing to drink water in an escalation of the strike.

In a news report last week, Israel's Channel 2 said that the Israeli prison authorities were mulling over the possibility of flying in foreign doctors to help force-feed Barghouti and his fellow strikers, writes Haaretz. The Israel Medical Association, the country's professional body for doctors, has banned its members from any force-feeding.

US President Donald Trump is expected to visit Israel on 22 May, but "hopes that the standoff with the hunger strikers will be over by then are not high" writes the Sydney Morning Herald.

A history of hunger strikes

Palestinians are no strangers to hunger strikes. They have a history of them dating back as far as the late 1960s following Israel's occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip after the Six-Day War.

According to Al-Jazeera, the strikes are seldom effective, though the region has never seen a hunger strike on this scale before.

"More often than not [the Israeli authorities] respond by placing the prisoners in solitary confinement, transferring them between prisons and blocking family visits," it says.

Placing prisoners in solitary confinement was used to bring to an end the first recorded hunger strikes in protest against the Israeli prison system in 1969.

By the advent of the 1980s, Israeli authorities had instigated a highly controversial force-feeding program to counteract hunger strikes.

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