JERUSALEM – Palestinian prisoners launched a hunger strike Sunday, in what was shaping up to be the biggest showdown between thousands of inmates and the Israeli authorities since the outbreak of Mideast fighting in 2000.
The prisoners want more family visits and phone access, but an Israeli Cabinet minister said he’d rather let them starve. Prison officials imposed more sanctions.
In violence in Gaza, meanwhile, Israeli helicopters fired four missiles north of Gaza City near the border with Israel early Monday, witnesses said. Palestinian hospital sources said two people were killed in the strike.
Israeli military sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said soldiers spotted militants setting up a rocket launcher, and the helicopters targeted them, hitting one. Ambulances arrived at the scene but hesitated to enter because of Israeli gunfire, witnesses said.
Meanwhile, the most prominent Palestinian prisoner is working on a smooth transition in the Gaza Strip after Israel’s planned withdrawal next year.
Marwan Barghouti, a leader of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, has presented an 18-point plan for Gaza to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the leaders of the two militant groups responded “positively, in principle,” according to a source close to Barghouti. A copy of the plan was obtained by The Associated Press.
Barghouti proposed that after the Israeli withdrawal, militant groups be given a role in running Gaza, but insisted that they halt attacks on Israel from that territory – though not from the West Bank.
Militants would stop parading armed in public, and within three months of the withdrawal would have to sell their weapons to the security forces. Gunmen could join the security forces, but would have to cut their ties with the militant groups.
Since Israel announced its pullout plan earlier this year, concerns have been raised about a power vacuum and a possible takeover by Islamic militants. Under Barghouti’s plan, Arafat’s Palestinian Authority would be the sovereign in Gaza, but a “monitoring committee” with representatives from all groups would have considerable say.
Barghouti, seen as a possible successor to Arafat, is serving five consecutive life terms for a role in attacks that killed five people, but is frequently mentioned in reports about possible prisoner exchanges.
Barghouti is taking part in the hunger strike, his daughter Aruba told the AP. The strike started Sunday with 1,600 inmates in three prisons and was to spread to others, with all 7,500 prisoners to take part by the end of the week.
The Palestinian government said it backed the prisoners and declared Wednesday a day of solidarity. “We fully support the legitimate demands of the prisoners and the ending of the policy of collective punishment, torture and terror by the Israeli prison administration against the prisoners and their families,” Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said in a statement.
In the past four years, Israeli troops have rounded up thousands of Palestinians on suspicion they were involved in bombing and shooting attacks that have killed nearly 1,000 Israelis. The prisoners are being held in Israeli jails, a large tent camp in the Negev Desert and at crowded military bases in the West Bank, where prisoners have complained of poor sanitary conditions.
The strike was organized by the main Palestinian factions – Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah. The hunger strikers want more access to phones, a cessation of strip searches and more family visits. Many prisoners have not seen their families because an Israeli security closure bars Palestinians from Israel.
Israeli officials reacted by imposing additional sanctions – including banning all family visits and the sale of cigarettes and candy. “At this point, the security prisoners are refusing their meals and they are drinking water,” said prison services spokesman Ian Domnitz.
Israeli Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said over the weekend that Israel would not give in to the prisoners’ demands. “The prisoners can strike for a day, a month, even starve to death, as far as I am concerned,” Hanegbi said.