About 1,500 Palestinian inmates launch hunger strike in Israel


JERUSALEM - An estimated 1,500 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons launched a hunger strike yesterday, demanding more visits with family members, an end to strip searches and better overall conditions.

The demonstration began in three Israeli prisons, and advocates said they expected it to grow to include hundreds more Palestinians held in other facilities on security-related charges.

Advocates said the strike sought to halt frequent searches of cells and strip searches of inmates and to ease restrictions on family visits, including removing glass partitions that separate prisoners from visitors.

"The goal of the strike is to improve prison conditions, and any claim that it is a political or security strike is unfounded," said Issa Qaraqe, president of the Prisoners' Club, a group in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Israeli officials signaled a hard-nosed stance toward the strikers, saying the prisons serve as hubs for planning and directing suicide bombings and other attacks against Israelis.

"I will view the cessation and cancellation of the hunger strike as a success, but not at the price of demands to continue hostile terrorist action or to control the prisons," Yaakov Ganot, commissioner of the Israel Prison Service, said in a prepared statement.

Last week, Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who oversees prisons, said the government had no room to improve conditions for inmates.

"As far as I'm concerned, the security prisoners can go on strike for a day, or a month, or even starve to death," Hanegbi told reporters. But a prison official said yesterday that authorities would forcibly feed prisoners to prevent them from starving to death.

About 3,800 Palestinians are held in 20 Israeli civilian prisons, according to Israeli prison officials. The hunger strike is centered in those prisons.

Israeli peace activists say an equal number of Palestinians are jailed in military facilities, including about 1,000 held under administrative detention, which allows suspects to be detained without trial or public accusation. Strike supporters say they hope the hunger action also extends to the military jails.

The prisoners issued a list of 57 demands, including better medical care, telephone privileges and an end to what they describe as arbitrary fines by Israeli authorities. Advocates say the number of prisoners has grown and prison conditions have worsened during the current intifada, which started nearly four years ago.

"The government should negotiate with them, should approach the 57 demands with an open mind and see what they can grant," said Adam Keller, spokesman for the Israeli peace group Gush Shalom. "That's the opposite of what the government is doing now."

Ganot, the prisons commissioner, said authorities over the years have given the prisoners a number of privileges that were not required by law, including access to television, radio, newspapers, university courses and electronic games.

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