Row over Israel's Arab prisoners

Controversy over Israeli treatment of Arab prisoners has been revived with the deaths of two Palestinian security prisoners from apparent complications while being force-fed during a hunger strike.

These two, along with 74 other Palestinian prisoners, were striking against what they called "atrocious" conditions at the new Nafha prison in the Negev Desert for maximum-security Palestinian prisoners convicted of terrorist or military attacks.

Only 10 days ago, prison-service sources told the Israeli press that conditions in Israeli prisons were the "worst . . . in the Western world" for 6, 000 Jewish and Arab inmates, half criminal and half security prisoners, the latter nearly all Arabs. They said budget allocations were inadequate and "only a miracle" had prevented riots.

Israeli treatment of Palestinian prisoners has been a subject of controversy in the past over charges by Palestinians as well as by Western news media and diplomats that Palestinians were tortured, especially during interrogation. Israel has denied the charges but has never permitted an independent outside investigatoin into interrogation centers, although the International Red Cross has access to prisoners under interrogation after 14 days and unlimited access to sentenced prisoners. Among 26 hunger strikers who were transferred on July 21 from Nafha to Ramle Prison inside Israel, several have claimed -- through an Israeli lawyer -- that two have been badly beaten after the transfer.

Prison spokesmen claim the hunger strike at Nafha, which began on July 15, was political, timed to coordinate with the current United Nations General Assembly debate on Palestine and the UN Women's Conference in Copenhagen. An attorney for the prisoners insisted at a press conference just prior to the deaths that the strike was sparked by conditions designed "to break the prisoners mentally and physically."

Nafha was opened two months ago to hold long-term Palestinian security prisoners. Reporters are not allowed to visit and so must rely on conflicting accounts of relatives and prison officials. In smuggled statements inmates demanded to "be treated the same as Jewish prisoners. . . ." They protested overcrowding, poor ventilation, windowless cells lighted only by electricity and holes in the ceiling, solid doors, poor food, an absence of furniture or beds, lack of books, exercise, and adequate medical facilities.

A spokesman for the Israeli prison service denied Arabs were treated worse than Jews but said conditions were stricter for security prisoners.

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