GAZA (Reuters) - Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails agreed on Monday to an Egyptian-brokered deal aimed at ending a mass hunger strike that challenged Israel’s policy of detention without trial and raised fears of a bloody Palestinian backlash if any protesters died.
Most of some 1,600 prisoners, a third of the 4,800 Palestinians in Israeli jails, began refusing food on April 17 although a few had been fasting much longer - up to 77 days.
Their protest centered on demands for more family visits, an end to solitary confinement and an end to so-called “administrative detention”, a practice that has drawn international criticism on human rights grounds.
Palestinian officials said Egypt had drafted an agreement in Cairo with representatives of the Palestinian prisoners, and that inmates met during the day and had agreed to the terms.
There was no immediate word from the prisoners as to whether any had actually ended their strike.
An Egyptian official involved in the talks said that under Monday’s deal to end the strike, Israel had agreed to end solitary confinement for 19 prisoners and lifted a ban on visits to prisoners by relatives living in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Israel also agreed to improve other conditions of detention, and to free so-called administrative detainees once they complete their terms unless they are brought to court, the Egyptian official said.
Gaza’s Hamas leaders hailed the strike as a successful campaign against Israel and celebrations quickly spread to the streets where motorists honked horns, and passersby embraced and shouted “Allahu Akbar,” the Arabic for “God is great.”
“This is a first step toward liberation and victory,” said Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for the Islamist group.
Israel saw the deal as a goodwill gesture to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who holds sway in the West Bank, a territory separate from Islamist-ruled Gaza. The territories, where Palestinians want a state, were captured by Israel in a 1967 war.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israel had “negotiated an end to the strike” in answer to a request from Abbas.
“It is our hope that this gesture by Israel will serve to build confidence between the parties and to further peace,” Regev said.
The hunger strikers included militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which reject peace with Israel, as well as members of Abbas’s Fatah group.
Israel’s Prisons Authority, confirming the deal to end the prisoners’ action, said “an agreement has been signed to bring about the end of a 28-day hunger strike by Palestinian security prisoners.”
Prisoners who sign a commitment “not to engage in actions contravening security inside the jails” would have prison conditions eased.
In a statement, the Israeli authority said that improvements for such prisoners would include a lifting of solitary confinement and a possibility of relatives visiting from Gaza.
Relatives’ visits from Gaza were suspended after Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Palestinian militants and taken to Gaza in 2006. He was released last October in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Israel did not say whether it would free any administrative detainees, but pledged in its statement that an inter ministerial team would look at prisoner requests and issue recommendations.
Around 320 of Palestinian prisoners are held in “administrative detention”, a security measure Israel defends as a precaution to protect undercover sources.
Many of the other prisoners have been convicted of serious crimes, including murder. Palestinian leaders say they should be treated as prisoners of war, something Israel rejects.
Israel says the detentions without trial are necessary because some cases cannot be brought to open court for fear of exposing Palestinian intelligence sources who have cooperated with Israel.
Palestinians jailed by Israel are held in high esteem by their compatriots, who see them as heroes in what they term a struggle against occupation.
Two inmates who helped to launch the strike, Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahla of Islamic Jihad, were in the 77th day of their fast on Monday.
Last week, Israel’s Supreme Court turned down their request to be freed from detention without trial but said security authorities should consider releasing them for medical reasons.
A month ago, Israel released hunger striker Khader Adnan, an Islamic Jihad member, amid concern he would die. He agreed to end his fast after 66 days in exchange for a promise not to renew his detention.
Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta and Jihan Abdallah in Ramallah and Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem; Editing by Rosalind Russell