Palestinian hunger strike demonstrations spark clashes
A Palestinian throws back a tear gas canister fired by Israeli troops during clashes outside Israel's Ofer military prison. Photo: Reuters
Hundreds of Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli security forces as demonstrations in support of hunger striking prisoners sparked growing unrest across the West Bank.
The clashes occurred as more than 1000 demonstrators gathered near the Beitunia checkpoint to march to the nearby Ofer Military Prison – there were at least 27 people injured including two Israelis, medical sources said.
One of the hunger strikers, Samer al-Issawi, who human rights groups say is now desperately ill, was sentenced to eight month's prison on Thursday, which with time served could result in his release on March 6. However he also faces the possibility of being sentenced by a special military committee, which has the power to cancel a prisoners' amnesty.
Palestinians hold stones as they sit next to a burning tyre. Photo: Reuters
Mr al-Issawi, who was released from prison in October 2011 after being granted amnesty in the prisoner exchange deal that resulted in the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, was rearrested in July 2012 for allegedly breaching the terms of his amnesty.
The 34-year-old has lost half of his body mass, weighs only 47 kilos and is confined to a wheelchair, the human rights group Addameer says.
He has vowed to continue his protest, where he has lasted for more than 204 days with only intermittent food, surviving mainly water and vitamin supplements.
In a heartfelt letter written from prison last week Mr Al-Issawi said: “The doctors told me I am exposed to stroke because of the disorder of my heartbeats, the shortage of sugar and the drop in blood pressure.
“My body is … cold and I can't sleep because of the continued pain. But despite the extreme fatigue and chronic headaches … there is no going back, … my detention is invalid and illegal.”
Two of the hunger strikers – Mr Al-Issawi and 37-year-old Ayman Sharawna, who was also released in October 2011 and then rearrested – are trapped in what Addameer's advocacy officer Gavan Kelly describes as “legal limbo”.
“They say he [Al-Issawi] broke the terms of the agreement – but they will not say how he broke the terms or what evidence they have, it is based on secret evidence that his lawyers are not allowed to see,” Mr Kelly said.
Mr Sharawna, who has also been on hunger strike for more than 200 days, appeared before Israel's High Court on Wednesday. His case was sent back to the Military Court to be heard, Mr Kelly said.
Before their release in October 2011, they had been serving long prison sentences – 30 and 38 years respectively.
Two other prisoners on extended hunger strike, Jafar Azzidine and Tareq Qa'adan, are being held in administrative detention – which means Israel has not charged them with a crime and their lawyers have no access to any information to indicate why they are being held or what allegations they need to defend.
There are currently 178 Palestinian prisoners being held in administrative detention, Mr Kelly said.
Israel defends its use of administrative detention, saying it is vital to protect the country from acts of terrorism.
International concern about the condition of the prisoners has grown over the last week, with both the Middle East Quartet representative Tony Blair and the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton both calling for Israel to provide the prisoners with the appropriate medical assistance and legal recourse.
“This issue needs to be resolved quickly in order to avoid a tragic outcome which has the potential to destabilise the situation on the ground,” Mr Blair said.
Meanwhile, Ms Ashton reiterated the “EU's longstanding concern about the extensive use by Israel of administrative detention orders. Under international law, detainees have the right to be informed about the reasons underlying any detention and to have the legality of their detention determined without undue delay.”
The executive director of the human rights group Al-Haq, Shawan Jabarin, condemned Israel's use of administrative detention, describing it as “a secret fight – you never know what you are defending yourself against”.
“Even your defence lawyer has no access to the information to defend you,” he said.
“When you do not know when you will be released, when you will get your freedom, when you will see and hug your family members, it is very painful for prisoners and they reach a point where they would rather starve than continue.”