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A 'victory' for hunger strikers?

Palestinian prisonersby Khaled Amayreh

Hundreds of Palestinian political and resistance prisoners in Israeli jails have ended a mass hunger strike protesting against cruel and inhuman prison conditions following the conclusion of a compromise deal with Israel brokered by Egyptian Intelligence.

Israel refuses to grant the prisoners the legal status of "prisoners of war" and insists on considering them "terrorists" or "security prisoners" even though many of them were never involved in violent acts against the Israeli occupation.

According to the agreement, the prisoners pledged to refrain from getting involved in any security- impinging activities inside their places of incarceration. This includes recruitment of activists in order to carry out resistance missions and abetting or aiding acts that may undermine Israel's security.

In return, Israel agreed to facilitate the living conditions of prisoners, including considering ending solitary confinement and allowing family visits from both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Allowing family visits cannot be considered an Israeli concession as such visits were always allowed since the start of the occupation in 1967.

Israel, according to the agreement, would be absolved from carrying out its obligations if the prisoners decide to declare a new hunger strike.

The agreement has been hailed as a "victory" by Palestinian leaders, including the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership, while extreme right- wing figures in Israel dubbed the deal "surrender to terror".

Qaddoura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners' Club, which monitors conditions in Israeli jails where Palestinian prisoners are incarcerated, described the deal as "satisfactory" and "good under present circumstances".

"The agreement doesn't meet all of our expectations, let alone our aspirations. This is a bitter struggle between two unequal parties and our brothers (the prisoners) in the Zionist bastilles and dungeons have made maximum efforts to obtain a semblance of conditions that would grant them some dignity and human decency.

"Any concession we extricate from Israel's parsimonious hands is an achievement."

Fares pointed out that there is a general state of satisfaction among the prisoners following the conclusion of the deal.

"No one is euphoric or ecstatic, but at least some of prisoners' demands have been met, Israel is an enemy, not a friend, and we should not expect our archenemy to behave charitably towards us."

Fares also thanked the Egyptian government for playing a key role in the conclusion of the agreement.

The agreement doesn't meet some of the key Palestinian demands, especially those pertaining to so-called administrative detention, which Israel uses to incarcerate a given prisoner for years without charge or trial. Israel currently holds as many as 26 Palestinian parliamentarians without charge or trial.

Palestinian inmates have repeatedly demanded an end to open-ended internment, which they charge is tantamount to "hostage taking". However, Israel, while recognising that keeping prisoners in jail for years without charge or trial is not "an optimal exemplification of justice", argues that administrative detention is an effective deterrent that it doesn't want to lose.

Shortly before signing the agreement with the prisoners, an Israeli military court extended the captivity of Palestinian Legislative Council member Nayef Rajoub for another six months, for the fourth time running. Rajoub has spent a total of 10 years in Israeli jails on frivolous charges having to do with "inflammatory speech" and "incitement" against Israel's military occupation of Palestine,

The extension of Rajoub's detention is believed to be aimed at forestalling any agreement with hunger striking prisoners that might oblige the Israeli government to end his open-ended captivity.

Lawyers defending these leaders before Israeli courts argue that Israel resorts to "this manifestly illegal type of punishment" when it fails to establish a real case against prisoners.

"When the Israeli attorney fails to present hard or indicting evidence against a detainee before Israeli courts, Shin Bet (Israel's domestic security agency) simply claims there is secret evidence, and the Palestinian defendant is sent to open- ended incarceration, not knowing why he is in jail or when he will be set free," says Mohamed Amr, a lawyer from the southern West Bank of Hebron.

"No other country in the world, perhaps with the exception of Stalinist and fascist states, adopts this as part of its justice system. And, above all of this, Israel claims to be the only real democracy in the Middle East."

Another blemish that is likely to undermine the credibility of the deal between Israel and the Palestinian inmates has to do with Israeli goodwill. Israel is notorious for violating agreements reached with the Palestinians, especially those agreements not signed on Israel's own volition.

For example, Israel has rearrested more than a dozen former prisoners freed as part of the Gilad Shalit deal last year. Israel had pledged to refrain from re-arresting any of the freed prisoners.

Palestinian leaders also believe that Israel will seek "creative and innovative" tactics to further torment Palestinian prisoners and their families.

Bassam Kawasmeh, who has spent several years in Israeli jails, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Israel's cruel treatment of Palestinian prisoners was a reflection of the supremacist and racist Jewish view of the rest of mankind.

"What sort of treatment would you expect from a Jewish jailer or prison warden who sees you as an infra- human being, or outright animal. Their treatment of our prisoners is a direct reflection of their virulent religious ideology."

A few decades ago, Israel used to have somewhat modern laws guaranteeing a semblance of basic human rights and dignity in its jails and detention centres. However, as Israeli society kept moving towards extreme right-wing politics, and religious fanaticism became rampant, new draconian laws inflicting more pain and harassment on Palestinian prisoners were enacted by a justice system based on the notion that non-Jews are less than complete humans whose lives have no sanctity and whose rights are not protected.

According to the late Israeli writer and intellectual Israel Shahak, when Jewish sages and rabbis use the term "human" they only refer to Jews as non-Jews are not considered truly human. Hence, they are not entitled to human rights. The same maxim applies to the rabbinic interpretation of the Ten Commandments whereby "thou shall not murder," for example, is understood to mean "thou shall not murder a Jew" as the lives of non- Jews have no sanctity especially when compared to Jewish lives.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been quoted as saying that the prisoner agreement is a gesture of goodwill towards Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu hopes that Abbas will reciprocate by returning to a peace process with Israel that only saw the Jewish entity devour more and more Palestinian land and may already have rendered the creation of a viable Palestinian state unfeasible, due to ubiquitous Jewish settlements and colonies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

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