Israel Pulse

How Israeli minister pushed Palestinian prisoners to hunger strike

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Article Summary
Seniors at the Israel Prison Service warned Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan not to harshen conditions of the Palestinian prisoners or jam phone signals in jail, but he refused to listen.

On April 7, two days before the general elections, hundreds of Hamas members jailed in Israel will launch a hunger strike. According to the announcement by the prisoners’ leadership, and in contrast to previous hunger strikes, this time the inmates will not even drink water. The idea is for them to succumb quickly, flooding hospitals and increasing pressure on Israel to acquiesce to their demand. The first to strike will be prisoner leaders in five facilities, followed by all the Hamas prison population. Prisoners affiliated with other organizations, such as Fatah and its top official, former Tanzim head Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences, will join them.

The Israel Prison Service (IPS) has declared an emergency and beefed up its deployment. The IPS has reportedly called up doctors for reserve duty to administer forced feeding as the strike expands and the condition of the strikers deteriorates. Previous hunger strikes sparked bitter clashes with the Israel Medical Association (IMA) over the ethics of force-feeding. The IMA has already informed the IPS ahead of time that doctors would refuse to force-feed prisoners at death’s door.

From the minute Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called early elections and scheduled primaries in the ruling Likud party, this whole scenario was a foregone conclusion. On Jan. 2, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan convened a news conference at which he announced a crackdown on the thousands of Palestinians jailed in Israel for security-related offenses. “The party is over,” he declared combatively, presenting a series of measures that would make life tougher for the prisoners. These included limits on water use (Erdan claimed the inmates use five times more water than Israelis do), fewer canteen privileges, a ban on cooking in the cell areas, and a halt to the practice of housing prisoners affiliated with different organizations in separate wings or jails. Erdan also announced prisoners would no longer be allowed to elect their leadership, a body that in fact provides prison authorities with control over the prisoners and discipline.

In February, Erdan launched a campaign against the use of cellphones smuggled into the prisons, ordering the installation of jamming devices. The IPS had for years been reluctant to use these simple technological means, preferring instead to conduct periodic searches and confiscate hidden phones. Everyone understood that sweeping campaigns of the type announced by Erdan would have disastrous results and that a measured response to the phone issue was advisable. In other words, authorities had decided over the years to accept a certain degree of cellphone use that they could control in order to prevent wholesale use of the forbidden devices but avoid a showdown.

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Senior security officials warned against Erdan’s policy. The heads of the IPS argued behind closed doors that the minister was wrong and that he was motivated by political considerations on the eve of party primaries, but no one stopped him in time. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not put Erdan in his place, either, and Israel is now facing a dilemma. Any decision it makes could complicate matters further. Accepting the prisoners’ demands would be considered surrender; trying to overpower and force-feed them could encourage other inmates to join the strike and spark Palestinian protests in the West Bank. The death of a prisoner could set off widespread violence.

A week after Israel and Hamas reached initial understandings on a cease-fire and alleviation of the crisis in Gaza, the planned hunger strike raises the issue not only of the cellphones but also of the crackdown Israel launched several months ago on visits by inmates’ families. At an April 2 news conference, Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh linked the emerging cease-fire deal with Israel to the issue of the prisoners. He insisted there would be no compromise over the phones, the family visits and the canteen privileges. Israel, he had realized over time and certainly in recent weeks, only understands one thing: force.

The leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, considers himself “the father of Palestinian prisoners,” having promised them he would not forget them when he himself was freed from an Israeli jail in 2011 in a swap for a captured Israeli soldier. He is willing to go all the way, just as long as the prisoners, the spearhead of the Palestinian national struggle, remain steadfast.

The hunger strike, which is a result of worsening conditions mostly for Hamas inmates, also underscores the struggle between Fatah and Hamas and between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Which of them will the prisoners and their families crown as their greatest ally who stands beside them as they wage their just struggle? Fatah head and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas or Hamas’ Haniyeh and Sinwar? Where will the larger protests be held? In Gaza? In the West Bank? And what additional moral support will the organizations provide? A rocket launch by the Hamas military wing toward central Israel or a terror attack against Israelis in the West Bank with the help of an organized infrastructure? Will we witness, perhaps, a local initiative by young Palestinians as a gesture of support for the hunger strikers?

All these questions were put on the table at various assessment sessions conducted in recent weeks by Israeli security forces. The military and other security agencies are convinced the planned hunger strike will result in an escalation in Gaza and the West Bank. A clash in one arena could set off a series of clashes in another arena, pitting rival organizations against each other to prove which can deliver the most for “our brave young men” (Palestinian prisoners in Israel).

According to a famous Jewish saying, 100 wise men would not be able to pull out a stone that one stupid man threw down a well. To paraphrase the adage, if a not-so-smart minister throws a stone into a well, 100 wise men will not be able to pull it out. Erdan the braggart, who has consistently been wrong in his assessments and proved that not only does he not understand security issues but also refuses to listen to experts, has cooked up a dangerous and unnecessary mess for next week’s elections.

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Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

Eldar has published two books: "Eyeless in Gaza" (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and "Getting to Know Hamas" (2012), which won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. He was awarded the Ophir Prize (Israeli Oscar) twice for his documentary films: "Precious Life" (2010) and "Foreign Land" (2018). "Precious Life" was also shortlisted for an Oscar and was broadcast on HBO. He has a master's degree in Middle East studies from the Hebrew University. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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