Palestinian hunger strike heightens tension with Israel

JERUSALEM/GAZA (Reuters) - A hunger strike by more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners over their treatment in Israeli jails has turned into a heated dispute over whether the leader of the protest secretly broke the fast, and whether Israel tempted him to do so.

Palestinians take part in a protest in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails, in Gaza City May 9, 2017. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

The strike, which began on April 17, followed a call by Marwan Barghouti, the most high-profile Palestinian in Israeli detention, for a protest against poor conditions and an Israeli policy of detention without trial that has applied to thousands of prisoners since the 1980s.

Barghouti, a leader of the Fatah movement, has seen his popularity grow among Palestinians since he was convicted of murder over the killing of Israelis during the second intifada and sentenced in 2004 to five life terms. Surveys show many Palestinians want him to be their next president.

While hunger strikes are not uncommon among the 6,500 Palestinians in Israeli jails, many of whom were convicted of attacks or planning attacks against Israel, this is one of the largest yet. If sustained it could present a challenge to Israel ahead of a visit by U.S. President Donald Trump on May 22.

It is also likely to raise tensions between Israel and the Palestinians as the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem approaches in early June.

At the start of the strike, a group of Israeli settlers held a barbecue in the parking lot of one of the prisons, an apparent effort to taunt those inside who were not eating.

On Sunday, Israel’s public security minister, who says the strike is politically motivated, accused Barghouti of secretly consuming cookies and chocolate bars, and the government released footage from the Israel Prison Service.

“He lied to the Palestinian public when he claimed to be striking,” said Gilad Erdan. “Israel will not give in to extortion and pressure from terrorists.”

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The footage, two videos shot days apart from a camera mounted on the ceiling of the cell, do not conclusively show that the prisoner is Barghouti, 58, and it is not entirely clear what he is eating or whether he is doing so.

On Monday, following questions about how the video came to light, Erdan suggested Israeli prison guards had tempted Barghouti with the food. Since he is held in solitary confinement, he would not have been able to smuggle it in.

“You’ve got to understand, without me going into detail, that in order to lead him to this situation, a great many actions were taken,” Erdan told Army Radio. “They got results.”

Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, has denounced the video, saying it is an effort to discredit her husband, and suggested the footage may well have been taken in 2004.

“It was not surprising what the occupation did and the fabrications they have tried to spread,” she told Reuters. “Such an act has unveiled the ugly face of the Israeli occupation.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the health of the strikers was deteriorating and Israel needed to act.

“I am afraid some unfortunate things could happen to those prisoners which may complicate things further, therefore, I urge the Israeli government to accept their humanitarian demands,” he said during a news conference in Ramallah.

Fadwa and other wives and relatives have had no access to the hunger strikers, a situation the International Committee for the Red Cross, the United Nations and other organizations are trying to resolve with Israel.

She said ICRC officials told her the Israeli prison authority had prevented them from seeing her husband.

Suhair Zakout, a spokeswoman for the ICRC in Gaza, said the group had visited most of the prisoners taking part in the strike to check on their health and ensure Israel does not try to force them to eat.

Israel has resorted to force-feeding in the past, even though Israel’s Medical Association opposes the policy as a form of torture. It has urged Israeli doctors not to carry it out.

Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Angus MacSwan