19 August 2004 Edition

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Israel plans barbecues to fight mass hunger strike

Barbecues are planned by Israeli prison officials to grill meat near the cells of hunger striking Palestinian prisoners.

Israel's prison service reported on Monday that 1,602 political prisoners had refused food on Sunday 15 August. The open-ended hunger strike is supported by all Palestinian political factions inside and outside the prisons. The protest promises to be one of the most significant acts of resistance from inside the prisons in decades.

More than 4,000 prisoners are expected to eventually take part, according to the Palestinian Political Prisoners' Society, with an additional 2,000 set to participate in some symbolic fashion over the next few weeks. A series of solidarity actions are planned across occupied Palestine.

The prisoners are demanding an end to human rights violations in the jails and improved detention conditions. The inmates, including around 600 serving life sentences, say they will take only liquids and are willing to die if need be.

The detainees are demanding an end to beatings and strip-searches, as well as better medical care, more hygienic conditions and better quality food. They also want the prisons to stop using the suspension of visiting rights as a punishment. An official with a prisoner defence group based in Bethlehem, Abu Mohammed, said that currently, only 60% of prisoners are allowed family visits.

Mohammed said the prisoners were also demanding the removal of glass barriers from visit rooms, the installation of public telephones and an end to solitary confinement in tiny cells.

Israeli authorities have already said they do not intent to improve the treatment of prisoners. "We will concede nothing. From my point of view they can continue their movement to death," said Israeli Internal Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi, who dismissed the prisoners' demands as being aimed at making it easier to organise attacks in the prisons.

A prison service spokesperson said that the tactic of barbecuing meat outside cells and other psychological tactics are being considered. The Israelis have also been studying how other regimes responded to hunger strikes by political prisoners, including in Ireland. "These methods have been tried in places like Australia," he said, a reference to protests by asylum seekers. "We have looked at the experience of other prison services such as Northern Ireland and Turkey as a way of finding out how not to do things as well as how to do things."

The prison service has halted all family visits for the strikers, while pens and newspapers, radios and televisions have been removed from their cells.

The Palestinian Deputy minister for Prisoners' Affairs, Radi Jarai, denounced what he called a "policy of vengeance on the part of the Israeli authorities, while the detainees' demands are not political but merely humanitarian".

Shows of solidarity, notably by the detainees' families, are expected at Red Cross headquarters in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in addition to marches and special prayers.

Israeli prison authorities on Wednesday transferred 200 Palestinians considered to be the hard core of the protest from the high-security prison of Nafha to other facilities.

Huge rise in numbers jailed

The number of 'security prisoners' in Israeli jails and military holding centres has increased about tenfold since the second Intifada broke out in September 2000.

Amnesty International said in its annual report in May that "at least 1,500 (Palestinians) were held in administrative detention without charge or trial".

It added that "allegations of torture and ill-treatment of Palestinian detainees were widespread" and slammed the Israeli Army for carrying out "forcible transfers" of at least 18 Palestinians from their native West Bank to the Gaza Strip, following administrative detention without charge or trial.

Of the almost 8,000 Palestinian prisoners, about 17 prisoners have served over 20 years in prison, and 292 have spent more than ten years in jail. Nearly 400 of the prisoners have been sentenced to life imprisonment. More than 300 are serving sentences ranging between 15 and 50 years.

Since the beginning of the second Intifada, at least 2,500 children have been arrested, of whom 415 are still in Israeli detention centres. Most of them, a 60%, come from areas with highly visible Israeli military presence. Children under the age of 18 make 5% of the total of Palestinian prisoners and 90% of those children were subjected to torture. About 242 children are awaiting trial and 20 are held without charges.

Children are mostly held in Telmond prison and Telmond Megiddo Military Prison. The overwhelming majority (95%) of Palestinian children aged 14 to 17 detained are held on the charge of stone throwing.

About 1.5% of Palestinian prisoners are women. Since the 2000 intifada, the number of Palestinian women imprisoned increased dramatically.

Israeli authorities have used the technique of arresting wives to put pressure on their husbands while in the interrogation process to force them to admit guilt.

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