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Hunger Strikes Highlight Isolation of Palestinian Prisoners

Detainees Seek Better Conditions, Access to Families

Demonstrators gather during a rally in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails, in the West Bank city of Ramallah April 17, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

On April 16, more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners began a hunger strike. Their primary demands include more frequent and lengthy family visits, better prison conditions such as improved medical care, and an end to solitary confinement and administrative detention – detention without charge or trial.

Many Palestinian civil society groups have mobilized in support of the prisoner movement. Last Thursday, nearly all shops in the West Bank city of Ramallah were shuttered in adherence to a general strike called for by the prisoners – a level of participation in a protest that one rights leader said he hadn’t seen in Palestine in nearly three decades.

Najat al-Agha. © Private

Of the more than 6,000 Palestinian detainees, Israel holds nearly 500 in administrative detention, many for prolonged periods. While international humanitarian law permits administrative detention as a temporary and exceptional measure, Israel’s expansive use of this form of internment in year 50 of the occupation raises important due process concerns.

Israel jails most Palestinian prisoners from the occupied West Bank and Gaza inside Israel, even though transferring residents from occupied territory violates international humanitarian law. This means families who have an imprisoned family member need to obtain an additional permit from the military to enter Israel to visit them, which requires security screening by the Israel Security Agency, or Shin Bet. Relatives who could more easily visit inmates in the West Bank find themselves rejected on unspecified grounds from joining the family visitor buses that enter Israel, which amplifies the anguish of separation between the prisoner and their family.

One person rejected was Najat al-Agha, a 67-year-old woman from Gaza. She told us that Israeli authorities have turned down, without explanation, her last five requests to visit her son Dia in Nafha Prison. Dia is serving a life sentence after having been convicted of killing a soldier in 1992 when he was 18. She last visited him on June 11, 2016.

Asked how she felt on the day of that visit, al-Agha said, “I felt as if I owned the world. I have been in grief since June 11, 2016. I keep praying to be given permission to visit him. I am 67 years old. … I don’t know how long I will be alive to see him.”

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